Heartburn is a common condition that occurs when stomach acid escapes from the stomach and travels back up through the esophagus. Occasional heartburn isn’t usually considered serious and can be safely treated with over-the-counter remedies. But that doesn’t mean you should never consider speaking to your doctor about your heartburn.
Frequent heartburn can be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If heartburn occurs too often, esophageal damage and even cancer can occur. You might even experience respiratory problems due to your frequent heartburn. Other conditions can mimic heartburn, like gallstones, heart problems, or a stomach ulcer. See your doctor about your heartburn if…
Your Heartburn Is Frequent or Long-Lasting
If you only have heartburn once in a while and it goes away with over-the-counter remedies, you probably don’t need to see a doctor. But if your heartburn occurs more often than twice a week or lasts for more than two weeks, you should seek medical attention. That’s especially true if your heartburn symptoms are bad enough to keep you awake at night or if they become worse or more frequent. Over-the-counter antacids are usually sufficient to treat the symptoms of run-of-the-mill heartburn. If you’re not getting results from over-the-counter medications, you might need a use a prescription medication to treat your heartburn.
You Have Respiratory Symptoms
You’re right to think that a persistent cough or trouble breathing could be a symptom of bronchitis or another respiratory condition. But it can also be a symptom of GERD. Some people even have respiratory symptoms instead of the characteristic burning feeling associated with heartburn. Even if you don’t have heartburn pain, your esophagus could still be sustaining damage.
You Have Trouble Swallowing
If you frequently suffer heartburn and you’re having trouble swallowing, that’s an indication that you could have already sustained esophageal damage. You might be suffering from esophageal scarring, ulcers, or Barrett’s esophagus, which is precancerous. If you’re having trouble swallowing, your doctor will examine the condition of your esophagus through an endoscopy.
You Are Experiencing Nausea or Vomiting
Severe heartburn that requires medical treatment may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or other symptoms. You should be especially concerned if you are vomiting blood or a dark substance that looks like coffee grounds. This could indicate internal bleeding and requires emergency treatment.
You Suffer From an Anxiety Disorder
While anxiety doesn’t cause heartburn or GERD, it can make the symptoms worse. Many people don’t realize they suffer from an anxiety disorder until prescription medication fails to resolve their heartburn or GERD symptoms. Exercise, counseling, and relaxation therapy, as well as anti-anxiety medications, can help treat GERD or heartburn symptoms related to anxiety and stress.
Is It Really Heartburn?
Heartburn-like symptoms can indicate a number of conditions, and not all of them affect the gastrointestinal tract. For example, did you know that a sudden, severe heartburn-like pain could indicate heart problems or even a heart attack? The pain of a heart attack is very similar to that of heartburn, so if you suddenly develop a serious bout of acute heartburn, don’t just reach for the antacids, especially if it’s accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
Shortness of breath
Pain in the legs, arms, neck or jaw
Seek emergency treatment for sudden acute heartburn, especially if you have other risk factors for heart disease, such as age, diet, or family history. If you develop heartburn-like pain during physical activity, it could be a sign of heart disease, especially if you’re over 50 or at risk for heart disease.
Gallstones can also cause heartburn-like pain, especially right after eating. Over-the-counter remedies aren’t usually enough to treat these symptoms. Stomach ulcers can also cause a burning feeling in the stomach that can seem to radiate throughout the chest. Most stomach ulcers are caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori and require antibiotics. Other causes of heartburn-like pain include:
Hiatal hernia. These occur when a portion of the stomach pokes through a hole or tear in the diaphragm. Treatment involves medication, lifestyle changes and, sometimes, surgery.
Usually caused by GERD, esophagitis can also occur from taking certain medications or due to an allergic condition known as eosinophilic esophagitis, which can be treated by eliminating allergens from the diet.
An inflammation of the cartilaginous tissue that attaches the ribs to the breastbone, costochondritis is treated with rest, pain relievers, and sometimes antibiotics.
Also known as pleurisy, pleuritis occurs when the lining of the chest cavity and lungs becomes inflamed due to a bacterial or viral infection. The pain associated with pleuritis will get worse when you move or take a deep breath.
If you’re suffering from frequent or severe heartburn, you need medical attention. Heartburn can permanently damage your esophagus and lead to other conditions, like esophageal cancer. In fact, your heartburn-like pain may not even be heartburn at all. The only way to tell is to talk to your doctor.