Burning Up: The Truth About Heartburn

By Meredith Sheldon
Truth About Heartburn

Feeling the burn? If a wave of pain is rushing through your chest, it might not be coming from your heart. Those aches that feel like chest pain could actually be coming from somewhere else. Let’s learn the truth about heartburn.

Heartburn, which is associated with burning pain in your esophagus, nausea, vomiting and trouble swallowing food, is a result of stomach acid and other contents refluxing back into the esophagus. “It is described as a warm or fiery pain, but it can feel like a heart attack,” Dr. Brian Weiner, clinical associate professor of medicine within the division of gastroenterology in the UF College of Medicine’s department of medicine, said.

Acid reflux, or heartburn, affects an estimated 10 percent of the population, Dr. Weiner said, and there are many risk factors for developing it. The people most commonly affected include those who are overweight, avid smokers and frequent drinkers. Overweight people are more prone to heartburn because the extra layers of fat increase the pressure in the abdomen, which pushes stomach contents up into the esophagus, said Dr. Robert Curry, a professor emeritus for the department of community health and family medicine at the UF College of Medicine.

Although there is no ultimate cure for heartburn, there are many ways to alleviate the pain. Dr. Curry recommended lying on your side to help the stomach empty, losing weight, cutting back on alcohol and smoking, and avoiding trigger foods. He said that lying on your back can increase the refluxing. “Gravity is your friend, but it is also your enemy when you are laying flat,” he said.

Foods that can exacerbate reflux include fatty foods, spicy foods, chocolate, carbonated beverages, peppermint, tomatoes, vinegar, coffee and citrus fruits. These foods are all high in acid and can make acid reflux worse, Dr. Curry said. Avoid these foods if you are experiencing pain frequently. To neutralize the acid, consider eating food like milk products and yogurt.

Besides cutting back on acidic foods, Dr. Curry also recommended antacids to cope with the pain. He said medicines like calcium carbonate, or Tums, work quickly but do not last as long. If you are seeking longer pain treatment, try antacids like Mylanta, Maalox, Zantac, Pepcid, Prilosec and Nexium, he said.

Dr. Curry said it is important to know the truth about heartburn to prevent long-term effects. Since the esophagus is not meant to withstand high acidic contents, if chronic heartburn goes untreated, it can lead to serious problems like Barrett’s esophagus, which can result in cancer of the esophagus. If all treatment options are exhausted and heartburn still occurs, Dr. Curry said it is important to go for an endoscopy to check for any underlying GI issues. The symptoms of heartburn can feel similar to a heart attack, so keep both your GI health and heart health in check to know the root of the pain you are experiencing. In the case of unexplained, persistent chest pain, it is always best to seek medical attention to be sure that you aren’t suffering from something more serious than heartburn.

Medicines for Heartburn


Works right away, but has a short duration. Good for people with chronic heartburn.

Mylanta and Maalox

Work quickly and last longer than Tums. Both contain magnesium.

Zantac and Pepcid

Do not work as quickly, but last 12–24 hours.

Prilosec and Nexium

Last up to 24 hours but take 30–60 minutes to kick in.

*Always check with your doctor before taking a new medication.


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