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Heartburn is a burning sensation that rises from your stomach or lower chest up towards your throat. Occasionally it may feel like food is coming back up, and some people get an acid or bitter taste in the back of the mouth. Heartburn can last for several hours and is often worse after eating, or when lying down or bending over. Heartburn is the most common symptom of reflux.
Reflux occurs when acid in your stomach, which is there to help you digest your food, rises up into your oesophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach), causing irritation, pain and discomfort. Other symptoms of reflux include difficulty swallowing, excessive burping and regurgitation.
Heartburn becomes more common as we age but fatty foods and large meals are a common trigger. Coffee, alcohol, tomatoes, orange juice, and spicy foods can also aggravate heartburn problems in some people.
In some cases, a faulty spincter muscle at the top of the stomach leads to heartburn. Once our food is chewed and swallowed, it is pushed down the oesophagus and through this sphincter into the stomach. Normally the contents of your stomach are prevented from moving up into your oesophagus by this ring of muscle. The muscle acts as a one-way valve, allowing food to enter your stomach but not to exit the same way. Sometimes this valve doesn't work properly, it becomes weakened and doesn't close properly, and allows stomach acid to rise up into your oesophagus, causing that uncomfortable burning feeling. When your oesophagus is exposed to the acid it may become irritated and painful.
Most people experience reflux occasionally, but some suffer from it more regularly. If you experience heartburn or other symptoms of reflux more than twice a week, or these symptoms adversely affect your wellbeing, you may have gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), or Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). GORD or GERD can have a significant impact on quality of life and may damage your oesophagus if it is not treated appropriately.
If you have GORD, refluxed stomach acid may inflame and damage the lining of your oesophagus. It is not possible to tell from your symptoms whether or not you have damage to your oesophagus. You need to see your doctor if you have troublesome symptoms or you symptoms occur more than twice a week. If left untreated, GORD may also lead to more serious complications.
Some medications may aggravate heartburn - for example, some anti-inflammatory medications used to treat arthritis. Ask your doctor about any medications you are taking.
Heartburn and reflux can be treated with medications to neutralise or reduce the amount of acid in your stomach. This reduces the discomfort caused by refluxed stomach acid and enables the lining of your oesophagus to heal.
Sometimes, symptoms described as indigestion can be related to something more serious.
Mild indigestion is not often associated with something serious. But when there are other symptoms such as food getting stuck when you swallow, vomiting, severe apin, losing weight, reduced appetite, vomiting blood or passing blood, you should see your doctor right away.