For some, it’s a regular occurrence that can ruin an otherwise outstanding meal. For others, it’s a painful surprise that can leave you coughing with a terrible taste in your mouth. We’re talking, of course, about heartburn, also known as acid reflux.

If heartburn is common for you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Sixty million Americans report experiencing heartburn each month, with a quarter of them reporting it each day. Even if you only experience heartburn occasionally, understanding what causes it and how to relieve the pain can help you recover as quickly as possible!

What is Heartburn, and What Causes It?

Heartburn is an irritation in the throat and esophagus that’s caused by stomach acid seeping past the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is essentially the gateway between your esophagus and the stomach. It opens to allow food to pass or gas caused by digestion to be expelled. Generally, the LES closes tightly enough to keep stomach acid from rising (or “refluxing”) into the esophagus, but if doesn’t, you may feel the symptoms of heartburn, or acid reflux.

What are the Symptoms of Acid Reflux?

The symptoms of heartburn are pretty straightforward. The most common of these is the burning sensation that gives heartburn its name. The sensation is usually located right behind the breastbone but may be as high as in your throat. It may be more severe when you bend over or if you’re lying down. Often, you’ll also have a bitter or acidic taste in your mouth. Finally, some sufferers report difficulty swallowing or food “sticking” in their throats.

What Causes Heartburn?

When you have heartburn, your LES is either opening too frequently or isn’t closing tightly enough. As a result, it allows stomach acid to pass through to and burn your esophagus. So, why isn’t your LES functioning as it should?

There are three primary causes of heartburn: physical, behavioral, and dietary. Physically, acid reflux can be from conditions that cause too much pressure on your stomach and push fluid up into the esophagus, for example obesity or pregnancy. The behavioral causes are overeating — which overfills your stomach; stress — which can increase the acidity of your stomach; and smoking — which can relax the LES and increase stomach acid.

There are three primary causes of heartburn: physical, behavioral, and dietary.

The dietary causes of heartburn are twofold. Some foods can increase the amount of stomach acid you have. Commonly, this is acidic foods like tomatoes or citrus, but fatty meals can also cause heartburn. Finally, some foods and drinks, like alcoholic beverages, can increase the amount of stomach acid you have and cause the LES to relax too much, increasing the risk of acid reflux. All these foods and drinks are, by no means, the only causes of heartburn, especially chronic heartburn, but they are probably the most common.

What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is chronic or long-term acid reflux disease. Specifically, the disease refers to a chronically weak or relaxed LES, which allows acid to “reflux” (or flow back) into the esophagus. The severity of GERD can vary from an annoyance to an emergency, depending on how dysfunctional the LES is and how much stomach acid refluxes. Some doctors believe that a hiatal hernia can cause GERD.

How Can I Relieve Heartburn or GERD?

The treatment of GERD usually is the same as the treatment for standard heartburn, which tends to involve lifestyle and dietary changes. Some people may require medication to help prevent acid reflux if the lifestyle changes don’t suffice, especially those with severe or chronic cases. An even smaller number of individuals may require surgery to get relief.

Prevention: The First Step

The best way to relieve yourself of the pain of heartburn is to prevent it. The easiest of changes to make are dietary ones. For example, cutting back on your portion sizes and ensuring you don’t overeat at meals can help significantly. At the same time, avoiding the foods that can lead to acid reflux, or eating fewer of them, can go a long way, as well. Lifestyle changes like losing weight or quitting smoking can also help you avoid acid reflux.

Finding Relief from Heartburn Pain

If you already have heartburn and are looking for relief, you’re in luck. There are a lot of great ways to treat heartburn. The quickest, cheapest option is to take an antacid, which neutralizes stomach acids and works quickly. You can pick them up in most grocery stores or pharmacies. Two other over-the-counter relief options are H2 blockers and proton-pump inhibitors, which lower the amount of acid made in the stomach.

The quickest, cheapest option is to take an antacid, but it’s by no means the only solution.

Let’s say you’re out to dinner and don’t have medicine to find relief. There are a few simple solutions. Since heartburn is sometimes caused by pressure on the stomach, loosening your belt, if you’re wearing one, may help. At the same time, you can try eating ginger or licorice, since both are believed to help settle the stomach. You can also chew gum, since that can stimulate salivation, which can dilute acid and wash it out of your esophagus.

When Should I See a Doctor?

If you’re experiencing chronic heartburn or the symptoms are particularly severe, it may be worth discussing with your primary care physician. Sometimes, the symptoms of heartburn may appear as unsettlingly similar to a heart attack, specifically any chest pain. If you have symptoms that fit a heart attack more, like nausea or shortness of breath, or if you’re concerned it’s more than heartburn, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.

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Heartburn is a common affliction that can easily ruin an evening, even if it’s just a nagging irritation in your throat. Luckily, relief is simple and affordable to find, and you can often prevent acid reflux altogether! If you have chronic heartburn, though, or can’t find relief from GERD, your primary care physician may be able to help you find answers and the solutions you need.