Heartburn and Reflux

Heartburn and (acid) reflux are essentially the same thing. After food is chewed and swallowed it is carried down the oesophagus (also known as the 'foodpipe' or 'gullet') to the stomach in a process controlled by muscles around the oesophagus that 'massage' the lumps of food down.

When the food reaches the stomach it needs to pass through a ring called a sphincter that separates the oesophagus from the stomach and protects the oesophagus from the acids in the stomach. When stomach contents, including the acid, 'spill' into the oesophagus this produces a burning sensation in the chest called heartburn, which is also referred to as reflux (since the liquid flows back into the oesophagus), and also colloquially referred to as indigestion.

Where this is a contant problem it is referred to as ' GERD', which stands for GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease (sometimes called 'GORD' to reflect the British English spelling of Oesophagus).

What are the symptoms of heartburn and reflux?

Acid reflux and heartburn are generally accompanied by the following symptoms

  • Heartburn (as described above)
  • A burning sensation or acidic taste in the throat
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Cough (where no other apparent cause)

What treatments are available?

You may be able to manage your symptoms yourself with either lifestyle changes or non prescription medicines. Lifestyle changes that may improve the condition include:

  • Losing weight
  • Stopping smoking
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Reducing sizes of your meals (or eating smaller amounts more frequently)
  • Avoiding specific foods/drinks that may cause heartburn/reflux eg chocolate, coffee, fatty foods
  • Not lying down or going to bed immediately after eating (or within 3 hours)
  • Raising your head when lying down or going to sleep by for example putting a wedge under the mattress under your head or raising the bed (at the bed head end) by ~15-20cm

Some medicines available over the counter at the pharmacy may help, such as antacids and antihistamines.

You should always seek medical advice prior to trial of medications to ensure that you are treating the right problem.

What are some of the warning signs/concerning features that would warn me to seek early medical attention?

  • You have difficulty swallowing or the sensation that food is getting stuck after you swallow
  • You are losing weight (and you are not following a regime to lose weight)
  • You notice any blood (this could be bright red or a black tar like consistency) in vomit or bowel movements