Heartburn is a feeling of burning pain or discomfort in the chest, usually after eating.
The pain typically worsens when you are lying down or bending over.
What causes heartburn?
Normally, a ring of muscle at the lower end of the oesophagus (the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach) relaxes to let food in, and tightens to prevent stomach acid from escaping.
However, if the muscle relaxes when it shouldn’t, or is weak, stomach acid is able to rise up into the oesophagus where it can cause pain and irritation. Heartburn can also occur when the stomach is producing a lot of acid, such as when stressed.
Common triggers for heartburn
Some people experience heartburn regardless of what they eat. Others find they only get it after eating certain foods or meals. Common triggers for heartburn include:
- large meals
- fatty or spicy foods
- coffee and cola drinks
- citrus foods
Other things that can increase your risk of heartburn are:
- being overweight or obese
- being pregnant
- taking certain medications (check with your doctor)
- eating a large meal
- exercising too soon after eating
Looking after yourself
If you have heartburn, there are some lifestyle changes that may help prevent it, or at least manage the symptoms.
- eating smaller, more frequent meals instead of large meals
- avoiding any foods you know trigger heartburn
- avoiding lying down soon after a meal — wait for 3 hours
- not eating too late at night
- lifting the head of your bed so you are raised from the waist up
- losing weight, if you are overweight
- stopping smoking, if you smoke
- avoiding tightfitting clothing
You may also want to try over-the-counter medicines called antacids, which neutralise stomach acid. If you are pregnant, check with your doctor or pharmacist if these medications are safe for you to take.
When to see a doctor about heartburn
If over-the-counter treatments don't work, or you rely on them often, see your doctor. If you have heartburn more than 2 times a week, it could be a symptom of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), in which case you may need prescription medicines.
A lot of people take heartburn medicines when they don’t need to. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommends that you discuss any medication you are taking for GORD or heartburn with your doctor or specialist to see if it’s safe to reduce or stop it. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
Read about other symptoms of GORD.
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Last reviewed: July 2019