When should I see a doctor about heartburn?

Infrequent heartburn can be treated by over-the-counter antacids. However, frequent heartburn can be a sign of a more serious disease such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), functional dyspepsia, gastritis or peptic ulcer disease. The most common is GERD, which is essentially chronic acid reflux, wherein the stomach acid has caused inflammation in the esophagus. It can be caused by abnormal relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, which normally holds the stomach closed. The changes caused by the acid reflux can be permanent or temporary. In general, if the burning sensation occurs after eating, wakes you from sleep or worsens with lying down or bending over, it is likely time to seek medical attention. Left untreated, GERD can lead to cellular changes called Barrett's esophagus, which is a precursor to esophageal cancer.

If  you have heartburn, call or go to the doctor or clinic for:

  • Frequent heartburn that does not get better
  • Heartburn that gets worse when you try medicine
  • Losing weight without trying to
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Unexplained cough or wheezing (whistling sound when you breathe)

In general, see your doctor if it is "troublesome" (i.e., it is affecting your quality of life). Of course, any discomfort that occurs in the chest could represent heart disease rather than gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). For this reason, it is important to make sure that the "heartburn" is in fact coming from your GI tract. Finally, if the "heartburn" is associated with food getting stuck when you swallow it, weight loss, fevers, unexplained anemia, etc., you should immediately consult your physician.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Frequent heartburn can be a sign of a more serious problem. Find out if heartburn can be a sign of a health problem as Dr. Oz talks with Dr. Robynne K. Chutkan in this video.

People often dismiss heartburn as an ailment not to be taken seriously, but it's a symptom not to be ignored. Particularly severe heartburn, with chest pain or a persistent or acute ache, is similar to a heart attack. A chronic cough that accompanies heartburn is also a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and can damage the esophagus. Lastly, if you've been taking over-the-counter treatments for weeks for heartburn that occurs several times a week, you might need surgery. Heartburn that frequent can damage the esophagus, putting you at risk for a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus or even esophageal cancer.

Patients should seek care for long-lasting or frequent heartburn that can cause acid damage.

Another factor to consider is sleep breathing disorders (SBD). For example, in the presence of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), during apneic events there is a tremendous effort to breathe. This pressure difference does contribute to gastric acid reflux into the esophagus.

A polysomnogram (PSG), commonly called "sleep study" at an accredited center would be warranted if OSA is suspected. It is important to realize that OSA does not only affect obese older men. OSA is prevalent among thin, younger patients also.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.