The Hidden Dangers of Heartburn 

By Jim Miller

Almost everyone experiences heartburn or acid indigestion from time to time, but frequent episodes can signal a much more serious problem. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and treatments to help relieve symptoms.

It’s estimated that more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, with around 15 million people who suffer from it daily. If you are plagued by heartburn two or more times a week, and it’s not responding well to over-the-counter antacids, you need to see a doctor. Frequent bouts may mean you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can severely irritate and damage the lining of your esophagus, putting you at risk of Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer if it’s not treated.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Depending on the frequency and severity of heartburn, there are a number of lifestyle adjustments you can make that can help provide relief and avoid a more serious problem down the road. Consider these tips:

• Avoid problem foods: Certain foods can trigger heartburn symptoms like citrus fruits, tomatoes, fatty foods, chocolate, garlic, onions, spicy foods, mints, alcohol, coffee and sodas. Your should keep a food diary to track which foods cause you the most problems and avoid them.

• Eat smaller, slower and earlier: Smaller portions at mealtime and eating slower can help reduce heartburn symptoms. You should also wait at least three hours after eating before lying down or going to bed.

• Lose weight: Having excess weight around the midsection puts pressure on the abdomen, pushing up the stomach and causing acid to back up into the esophagus.

• Quit smoking: Smoking can increase stomach acid and weaken the valve that prevents acid from entering the esophagus. If you smoke, the National Cancer Institute offers a number of smoking cessation resources at SmokeFree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

• Sleep elevated: To help keep the acid down while sleeping, get a wedge-shaped pillow to prop you up a few inches. If that’s not enough, try elevating the head of your bed six to eight inches by placing blocks under the bedposts or insert a wedge between your mattress and box spring. Wedges are available at drugstores and medical supply stores. Sleeping on your left side may also help keep the acid down.

Treatment Options

If the lifestyle adjustments don’t solve the problem, or if antacids (Tums, Rolaids, Maalox, Mylanta or Alka-Seltzer) aren’t doing the trick, there are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help, along with surgery. Your doctor can help you determine which one is best for you. Treatment options include:

• H-2 Blockers: Available as both over-the-counter and prescription strength, these drugs (Pepcid, Tagamet, Axid and Zantac) reduce how much acid your stomach makes but may not be strong enough for serious symptoms.

• Proton-Pump Inhibitors (PPI): If you have frequent and severe heartburn symptoms, PPIs are long-acting prescription medications that block acid production and allow time for damaged esophageal tissue to heal. They include Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec, Zegerid, Protonix, Aciphex and Dexilant. Prevacid 24 HR, Prilosec and Zegerid OTC are also available over-the-counter. But be aware that long-term use of PPIs can increase your risk for osteoporosis and chronic kidney disease.

Surgery: If the medications don’t do the trick, there are also surgical procedures that can tighten or strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter so gastric fluids can’t wash back up into the esophagus.

Jim Miller is the author of Savvy Senior, published every month in In Good Health.

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