When to See a Doctor for Heartburn

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Man with hand on his chest, seeing doctor

Heartburn—that burning feeling in your chest. Everyone has had it at some point. Usually, it happens after eating or when lying down or bending over. It’s uncomfortable and often results in a sour or bitter taste in your mouth or back of your throat. Getting it occasionally is normal. You need to see your doctor if it becomes frequent or severe because it can be a sign of an underlying condition.

Common Causes of Heartburn

Heartburn happens when stomach acid enters the esophagus and causes irritation. Normally, a valve at the bottom of the esophagus—the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—lets food pass into the stomach and keeps acid out of the esophagus. In heartburn, the LES doesn’t prevent acid from back-flowing into the esophagus. This is acid reflux. Pain, burning, and other heartburn symptoms are the result.

What causes heartburn and acid reflux? Common causes include:

Your eating habits can also contribute to heartburn. This includes eating large portions and eating too close to bedtime. Certain foods and beverages can cause it as well. This includes spicy foods, high-fat foods, garlic, onions, citrus, and tomatoes and tomato products. Beverages with alcohol, caffeine and carbonation can cause problems for some people. You can also get heartburn from overly tight clothes or belts when you eat. It puts extra pressure on your LES.

Heartburn Treatment at Home

For occasional heartburn, you can manage it at home with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Try eating smaller meals and eliminating the types of foods and beverages that trigger your heartburn. Shedding extra pounds, managing stress, and cutting out cigarettes are smart choices for your heartburn and the rest of your health as well. Also, consider adjusting how you dress and possibly how you sleep. Some people find relief by raising the head of the bed several inches.

If lifestyle changes alone don’t help, OTC medicines can often provide relief for heartburn. For quick relief, antacids are your choice. They neutralize stomach acid and stop the burning. You can also find H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors on your drug store shelves. Examples include cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid AC), lansoprazole (Prevacid 24), and omeprazole (Prilosec OTC). These medicines reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes. They don’t work as quickly as antacids, but they last longer.

When to See a Doctor for Heartburn

If heartburn becomes a regular part of your life or becomes severe, it may be time to see your doctor. Make an appointment if you have any of the following:

Sometimes, heartburn can be a sign of a serious or even life-threatening condition, such as heart attack. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms:

Who to See for Heartburn

For heartburn treatment, start with your primary care doctor. If necessary, your doctor may suggest you see a gastroenterologist. These doctors specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect your digestive tract. Depending on your insurance plan, you may need a referral to see a specialist. Make sure you check with your plan before scheduling an appointment.

Don’t ignore persistent heartburn episodes. If you are in doubt about whether you need treatment or not, consult your doctor to find out if you need an appointment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 2
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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