Heartburn (heartburn): symptoms and treatment

What is heartburn or heartburn? In case of heartburn or reflux, the contents of the stomach flow back into the esophagus. This can damage the mucous membrane in the esophagus and cause inflammation. This is accompanied by burning pain behind the breastbone. This phenomenon is known as ‘heartburn’. If this situation occurs frequently, the irritation in the esophagus can develop into scarring, causing permanent swallowing problems. Heartburn can be tackled through lifestyle changes and possibly medication.

  • What is heartburn or heartburn?
  • Rising of stomach acid
  • Recurring complaints
  • Prevent
  • Symptoms of heartburn
  • Causes of heartburn
  • Common causes
  • Heartburn and pregnancy
  • Self-care
  • Eating and living habits
  • Sleeping position
  • Medication
  • Consult your GP
  • Treatment of heartburn
  • Prognosis
  • Prevention


What is heartburn or heartburn?

Rising of stomach acid

Heartburn is the rising of stomach acid into the esophagus, where it causes irritation and burning pain. Normally, the diaphragm muscles close the entrance to the stomach, so that acidic stomach contents do not rise into the esophagus. Because the lining of the esophagus is not as strong as that of the stomach, the aggressive acid from the stomach can irritate the esophagus and cause inflammation. Heartburn is an unpleasant sensation, but the phenomenon usually does not last long.

Pregnancy and heartburn / Source: Zerocool, Pixabay

Recurring complaints

Recurrent attacks of heartburn may be a symptom of a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease. This is a chronic condition that occurs when the lower sphincter muscle that acts as a kind of valve between the esophagus and the stomach does not close properly and the stomach contents can flow back into the esophagus.


About 1 in 5 Dutch people suffer from heartburn every week. 10% experience heartburn every day. The extent to which varies from person to person. With proper knowledge of heartburn and its treatment, the frequency and severity of attacks can be reduced.

Symptoms of heartburn

The following symptoms may occur with heartburn:

  • burning pain or discomfort behind the breastbone or in the upper abdomen;
  • a burning sensation or sour taste in the back of the throat or mouth;
  • often burp.

The complaints mainly occur when lying down, bending over or straining. This allows the stomach contents to flow more easily into the esophagus.

Causes of heartburn

Common causes

There are several factors that can cause or worsen heartburn. Some common causes include:

  • the improper functioning of the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach;
  • eating certain foods, such as fried, fatty or spicy foods;

Coffee and heartburn / Source: Istock.com/PuwanaiSomwan

  • drinking irritating substances, such as carbonated soft drinks, alcohol or coffee;
  • stress or tension;
  • Bend over;
  • eating extensively before going to sleep (causing nocturnal symptoms);
  • overweight;
  • pregnancy;
  • smoking;
  • certain medications (especially painkillers).


Heartburn and pregnancy

About 25% of pregnant women experience heartburn or related symptoms. A significant number of women experience heartburn for the first time when they are pregnant. It is a common complaint during pregnancy. This has two main causes:

  • Hormonal changes in the body due to pregnancy relax the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus, making it easier for stomach contents to enter the esophagus.
  • Because the baby is getting bigger in the womb, it can at some point start to press on the stomach. This increases the chance that stomach acid will enter the esophagus.



Heartburn can often be prevented by adjusting a number of eating habits and following a number of simple lifestyle rules. Below are some tips that help to relieve the complaints:

Do not use alcohol for heartburn / Source: Istock.com/karelnoppe

Eating and living habits

Eat smaller portions more often throughout the day instead of an extensive meal three times a day. Don’t eat anything late at night. In a lying position, food flows back into the esophagus more quickly. Quit smoking, don’t use alcohol and lose weight. Also avoid other culprits such as coffee, spicy or fatty foods and chocolate.

Sleeping position

If heartburn occurs mainly at night, it may help to raise the head of the bed slightly (about 10 cm) using bobbins. This will cause the stomach contents to flow upwards less easily. Using extra cushion is not effective. It can even worsen the complaints because it increases the pressure on the stomach.


Heartburn usually disappears after drinking milk, using baking soda or (over-the-counter) medicines (antacids or antacids). If complaints persist, the doctor can prescribe other remedies.
If the complaints occur regularly or even continuously, consult your doctor.

Consult your GP

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience severe chest pressure or pain, especially with other signs and symptoms such as arm or jaw pain or difficulty breathing. Chest pain can be a symptom of a heart attack.
Make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • you suffer from heartburn more than twice a week
  • symptoms persist despite the use of over-the-counter medications
  • you have difficulty swallowing
  • you suffer from persistent nausea or vomiting
  • you lose weight because of a poor appetite or difficulty eating


Treatment of heartburn

If lifestyle modifications, self-care measures, and over-the-counter remedies do not effectively control heartburn symptoms, the next steps include using prescription medications and other treatment options. A doctor can prescribe a medicine called a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), which reduces the amount of acid your stomach makes. PPIs include:

  • omeprazole
  • lansoprazole

You will usually need to take this type of medicine for 4 or 8 weeks, depending on how severe the acid reflux is.
Surgical intervention for heartburn is rare. However, if heartburn is uncontrollable or complications such as Barrett’s esophagus develop, surgery may be considered by the doctor. With Barrett’s esophagus, part of the mucous membrane on the inside of the esophagus is different than normal.


The prognosis for the vast majority of people with heartburn is very good. Many people have no treatment or can suffice with over-the-counter remedies and self-care measures. A small number of people will develop complications and their prognosis will range from good to more unfavorable.


Heartburn can be reduced or prevented by the following measures:

  • lifestyle changes
  • avoiding certain foods
  • over-the-counter medications,
  • prescribed medicines
  • (rarely) surgical intervention


read more

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