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About 60 to 70 million Americans suffer from digestive disease.
*Source: National Institutes of Health

Heartburn, Esophageal Ulcers, and Esophageal Cancer

Heartburn is a burning feeling in the lower chest, accompanied by a sour or bitter taste in the throat and mouth, usually after a big meal or while you're lying down. It can last for a few minutes up to a few hours.

Occasional heartburn is common and not indicative on anything serious. Frequent heartburn may be a symptom of something requiring medical attention.

In particular, when untreated, chronic heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, the leading cause of Barrett's Esophagus, which can lead to esophageal adenocarcinoma, a particularly lethal cancer. Chronic acid reflux also causes esophageal ulcers, open sores on the lining of the esophagus (esophageal ulcers).


Heartburn is a symptom, a burning pain in the chest that occurs after eating or at night, worsening when you lie down or bend over.

Severe chest pain is a symptom of a heart attack; seek immediate medical help.

Heartburn that is frequent and interferes with life is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

See your WellStar physician if your heartburn:

  • Occurs more than twice weekly
  • Persists when you take over-the-counter medications
  • Causes difficulty in swallowing

Causes and Prevention

At the bottom of your esophagus there is a valve, the lower esophageal sphincter, that is normally closed, preventing stomach acid from flowing into the esophagus. This valve relaxes to allow food to flow down into your stomach. When it relaxes otherwise, or is weakened, acid can leak into the esophagus, causing heartburn. Lying down or bending over increases the tendency of acid to leak past the defective valve.

Smoking damages the lower esophageal sphincter.

Various foods and drinks trigger heartburn in some people:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Black pepper
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus
  • Coffee
  • Fats
  • Fried food
  • Ketchup
  • Peppermint
  • Soft drinks
  • Tomato sauce
  • Vinegar

Certain osteoporosis medications can cause esophageal ulcers.


Some lifestyle changes that may provide heartburn relief are:

  • Keeping a healthy weight
  • Wearing loose clothing
  • Avoiding triggering foods
  • Smaller meals
  • Not lying down immediately after a meal
  • Elevating your head when you sleep
  • Not Smoking

Over-the-counter medications that relieve heartburn are very common.

  • Antacids, like Rolaids® and Tums®, neutralize stomach acid, providing immediate relief.
  • H-2-receptor blockers, such as cimetidine (Tagamet HB®) and famotidine (Pepcid AC®) reduce stomach acid production, and are a longer-term solution.
  • Proton pump inhibitors, like lansoprazole (Prevacid 24®) and omeprazole (Prolosec OTC®) also inhibit acid production.