An attack of heartburn can leave you wondering if simple indigestion is really all that’s causing your pain. Heartburn and acid reflux can easily be mistaken for conditions with similar symptoms. Being clear on the symptoms of heartburn can help you choose the right treatment and avoid misdiagnosis of potentially serious underlying conditions. 

Symptoms of heartburn

Heartburn is associated with a burning feeling in the chest and is caused by acid reflux. You might hear the words ‘heartburn’ and ‘acid reflux‘ used interchangeably. Reflux occurs when the contents of your stomach travels back up into the throat, irritating the lining of the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth and stomach).

The symptoms of heartburn can be so severe that they are mistaken for a heart attack, but in fact, the two conditions are not associated. Despite having chest pain in common, a heart attack is also accompanied by difficulty breathing, jaw pain, and arm pain. 

If you’re suffering from heartburn, you may also notice that you have an unpleasant sour taste in your mouth, which is caused by stomach acid. You might also suffer: 

  • a cough or hiccups 
  • a horse voice 
  • bloating and feeling sick 
  • bad breath 

Persistent or severe heartburn is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

What causes heartburn

The burning sensation you feel when you suffer a bout of heartburn is caused by the acid in the stomach contents backing up into the throat. This can happen when the muscle at the top of your stomach is weakened – it is known as the lower esophageal sphincter, and if it isn’t working correctly, it can cause heartburn.

Conditions that affect this muscle can make the symptoms of heartburn worse, such as a hiatal hernia – where a part of your stomach moves up into your chest. You might also experience heartburn during pregnancy when additional hormones can cause the sphincter to relax and stop it from being able to do its job properly. 

Other contributing factors that could make your heartburn worse, include: 

  • being overweight
  • smoking 
  • certain food and drink 
  • stress and anxiety 
  • some medication, like ibuprofen 

Losing weight, eating smaller meals, and avoiding certain ‘trigger’ foods, can help alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux. If lifestyle changes are not enough, there is a range of heartburn medication available to buy from your pharmacy. 

Heartburn tablets

The most common type of heartburn tablets are antacids. They work by neutralising the acid in your stomach. Available as a liquid or in chewable tablets, you can buy antacids, like Pepto-Bismol, from supermarkets to treat heartburn and indigestion.  

Woman with Acid Reflux Pain

Some heartburn drugs also contain simethicone to reduce flatulence, and alginate – a compound that coats the inside of your esophagus to protect it from stomach acid. Gaviscon uses alginate to form a ‘raft’ on top of the stomach that stops acid from escaping and backing up into the throat.  

Left untreated, acid reflux can lead to other problems such as inflammation of the esophagus, also known as Barrett’s esophagus. This can damage the lining of the throat and increases your risk of esophageal cancer.

If you’ve had heartburn most days for three weeks or more, speak to your GP for a review.

Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI)

Proton Pump Inhibitors are a class of medicines that stop the cells in your stomach producing too much acid. They include drugs such as: 

Certain ranges of these treatments are only available to buy with a prescription from a healthcare professional, such as a pharmacist or GP.

Post My Meds can sell proton pump inhibitors online, where we feel it is safe to do so. You will be asked to take a short online consultation before choosing your treatment, and your answers will be reviewed by one of our registered pharmacists.

You may also have heard of H2 blockers, which work in the same way as proton pump inhibitors by reducing the amount of acid in the stomach. H2 blockers include drugs such as ranitidine, which is no longer thought to be safe. Speak to your pharmacist about a suitable alternative, if you’re still taking this type of heartburn tablet. 

When to see your GP

It’s quite common to suffer from heartburn from time-to-time, especially after a large meal or too much chocolate or caffeine. Occasionally it can be a sign of something more serious. If you suffer from any of the following, then you should seek help. 

  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when you swallow 
  • Food getting stuck in your throat 
  • Frequently being sick or persistent tummy pain 
  • Losing weight for no reason 
  • Blood in your stool (faeces) 

If you experience symptoms of heartburn most days for three weeks or more, you should consult your GP. They will be able to rule out any serious underlying conditions with a few simple tests. This might include pH testing to study the levels of acid your stomach produces, or a gastroscopy where a camera is used to look into your gastrointestinal system.

Living with heartburn

Managing the symptoms of heartburn is possible with the right diagnosis. If you suffer from severe acid reflux then making changes to your lifestyle, combined with the right heartburn tablets, can help to make day-to-day life much more comfortable. Speak to your GP or pharmacist for help choosing the right treatment for your condition.

Although all of our content is written and reviewed by healthcare professionals, it should not be substituted for or used as medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please speak to your doctor.

Authored Aug 09, 2021 by Joseph Issac, MPharm
Reviewed Aug 09, 2021 by Prabjeet Saundh, MPharm