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What Causes Frequent Heartburn?

About one in every six adults – nearly 60 million Americans – experience symptoms of heartburn at least once a month. It’s important to really understand what heartburn is, what causes it, and how to avoid it.

Heartburn is usually felt in the chest just behind the breastbone. It’s the pain you feel when harsh stomach contents come into contact with the delicate lining of your esophagus, causing irritation.

It’s important to know that heartburn affects everyone differently. For some, it feels like a burning pain that begins in the chest and moves up towards the throat. For others, it feels like food is coming back up into the mouth, or it’s an acidic or bitter taste in the back of the throat.  

Heartburn pain usually starts soon after you eat and it can increase in severity if you lie down or bend over.

What Causes Heartburn

Heartburn occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the natural valve that allows food into the stomach and not out, relaxes or stops functioning properly. When that happens, acidic stomach juices reflux, or flow backward into the esophagus. 

Other factors that can contribute to heartburn include eating acidic foods like tomatoes or citrus foods, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and certain medical conditions like diabetes or asthma.

In addition, excessive pressure on the abdomen can put pressure on the LES, allowing stomach acid to enter the esophagus or even the mouth. For that reason, if you’re pregnant or overweight, you might be especially prone to heartburn. Even tight fitting clothes can cause pressure that leads to frequent heartburn, as well as lying down or having too full a stomach.

Types of Heartburn

Generally, heartburn experts tend to use three categories to describe heartburn frequency: episodic, frequent, or persistent.

Episodic or occasional heartburn refers to infrequent flare-ups that are fairly predictable and occur less than once a week. For example, you could get episodic heartburn after overdoing it at an all-you-can-eat buffet. This kind of heartburn is usually treated with antacids.

At the other end of the spectrum is severe or persistent heartburn. These are painful, long-lasting episodes of heartburn that may occur most days if not all the time. Persistent heartburn should be treated by a medical doctor.

Frequent heartburn is the middle category problem. This means that you’re experiencing heartburn symptoms two or more days a week. If you’re having symptoms that often, you may want to take a proactive approach by reducing excess acid production that’s causing frequent heartburn, rather than waiting and treating your symptoms every time they occur.

How to Treat Frequent Heartburn

There are a number of heartburn medications to choose from that work differently. Antacids neutralize stomach acid on contact and they’re great for relieving symptoms immediately, but the relief is only temporary.

H2 blockers work by reducing excess stomach acid. H2 blockers begin working within an hour and last up to 12 hours, but they don’t provide the immediate relief of an antacid. Although preventative, H2 blockers might not avert heartburn as long with a single pill compared to a proton pump inhibitor, or PPI.

A PPI like Prilosec OTC is the most frequently recommended therapy to block heartburn for 24 hours with just one pill a day*.

How PPIs Work

When you eat, millions of tiny pumps in your stomach produce acid to break down food. H2 blockers inhibit a portion of the receptors and they last about 12 hours, while PPIs actually shut down some of the pumps, reducing the excess acid that causes heartburn while leaving enough behind to digest your food. PPIs don’t provide immediate relief but they can block heartburn before it starts, and they do it for a full 24 hours with just one pill a day*.

Be sure to talk to your healthcare professional if you think any other medications you’re taking might be contributing to your heartburn. Also ask about alternatives, but never stop taking any prescription medication before checking with your doctor.