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Your chest feels like it’s on fire, and you have a sour taste in the back of your throat. Ugh—it’s heartburn. Next time, you’ll think twice about that meat-laden pizza and chocolate cupcake dinner.

The occasional bout of heartburn, while uncomfortable, isn’t a cause for worry. But if it happens on a regular basis, it may be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a serious but treatable condition.

Heartburn Basics

“It may be called heartburn, but it’s not your heart that’s the issue,” says Ashutosh Gupta, MD, with ProCare Gastroenterology. Instead, it’s the esophagus—the tube that connects your throat

to your stomach. When you eat, your stomach produces acid to digest your food. If that acid backs up (refluxes) into your esophagus, it can trigger that classic symptom of a burning sensation in the chest or throat. You’re more likely to have reflux if you:

  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Are overweight
  • Wear tight clothes
  • Eat too close to bedtime
  • Eat chocolate; citrus foods; or spicy, greasy or acidic foods—such as tomato sauce
  • Drink beverages with caffeine or alcohol
  • Are pregnant

Lifestyle changes, such as avoiding foods that trigger reflux and quitting smoking, may help relieve heartburn, Dr. Gupta says. So may:

  • Eating smaller, more frequent meals
  • Losing weight
  • Wearing loose clothing
  • Elevating the head of your bed
  • Not eating for at least three hours before you go to bed

When to See a Doctor

For occasional reflux, over-the counter (OTC) antacids or H2 blockers (such as famotidine or ranitidine) can help. But if you’re taking OTC remedies two or more times a week, it may be a sign of GERD—and a sign that you need to see a doctor. Your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes, prescribe one or more medicines, or recommend surgery to strengthen the barrier between the stomach and the esophagus.

Without treatment, GERD can have serious consequences. It can cause changes to the esophagus that make swallowing difficult. It may also make asthma symptoms worse, cause chronic coughing and cause tissue changes that can lead to cancer. So, if skipping the pizza doesn’t prevent your reflux, it may be time to get help, Dr. Gupta says.

Your doctor can tell you: You don’t have to put up with GERD!

If you or a loved one has chronic GERD, please seek professional medical attention. If you need assistance finding a physician, please call (432) 640-6000.

Sources: American College of Gastroenterology; National Institutes of Health and Ashutosh Gupta, MD with ProCare Gastroenterology.