As you may know, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux from your stomach to the esophagus.
Heartburn is a common gastric complaint. For example, in the U.S. it affects more than 60 million people each month. Yes, each month. When does it become a disease? When the reflux symptoms occur frequently. Then it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If not treated then it gets complicated.
Distinguishing between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD may be hard, because they may all feel the same. However, understanding the differences can help a person find the right treatment. Difference lies in the severity and frequency of the symptoms and the damage inflicted by the acid to the esophagus and lungs. Yes, it can damage your lungs.
Reflux can also occur in infants. Infant reflux occurs when food refluxes from a baby’s stomach, causing the baby to spit up. This is rarely serious and becomes less common as a baby gets older. It’s unusual for infant reflux to continue after age 18 months.
Reflux in adults is fairly common. In 2005, a systematic review of population-based studies found the prevalence of reflux to be 10 to 20 per cent in Europe and North America and less than five per cent in East Asia. If reflux is not controlled then the acid will damage the esophagus causing inflammation, narrowing, ulcers and bleeding.
Managing early stage of heartburn and reflux
In early stages if occasional reflux is the only symptom then you can take care of it by simple life style changes: eat small meals, avoid any food that gives you heartburn, avoid big spicy meal, do not lie down after eating, do not smoke or drink alcohol, lose weight and use antacid, like Rolaids or Tums.
Managing late stage of heartburn and reflux
If measures like life style changes and antacids do not help then there are medications called H-2-receptor blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPI) that can be tried.
H-2 receptor blockers
These medications reduce the production of acid in the stomach. H-2-receptor blockers include cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid AC), nizatidine (Axid AR) and ranitidine (Zantac). H-2-receptor blockers don’t act as quickly as antacids, but they provide longer relief and may decrease acid production from the stomach for up to 12 hours.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPI)
These pills block acid production and heal the esophagus. They are stronger acid blockers than H-2-receptor blockers and allow time for damaged esophageal tissue to heal. Examples include lansoprazole (Prevacid 24 HR) and omeprazole.
According to Choosing Wisely (2017 Consumer Reports prepared in cooperation with the American Gastroenterological Association), in most cases, you don’t need a PPI for heartburn. More than half of the people who take PPIs probably do not need them.
You can get relief from a less powerful drug. And when you do need a PPI, you should take the lowest dose for as short a time as possible. Preferably for less than one year. Although generally well-tolerated, these medications might cause diarrhea, headache, nausea and vitamin B-12 deficiency. If you take it for more than a year then the risk of complications include: fractures, kidney problems, heart attack, dementia, pneumonia and colitis.
While you are being treated with different pills, you will probably undergo investigations like upper GI endoscopy, ambulatory acid (pH) probe test, esophageal manometry and x-ray of your upper digestive system. If indicated, your specialist will consider you for a surgical procedure.
Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!