How To Feel Better When You Think Your Heartburn Might Kill You

Whether you're in the middle of a deliciously greasy slice of pizza or right about to drift off to sleep, heartburn always seems to strike at the worst moments. And once it arrives, there's no ignoring it. When you're experiencing heartburn, it honestly feels like there's a fire in your chest, and it can also bring with it uncomfortable bloating or stomach pains.

The explanation for why this happens is pretty straightforward. "Normally, we chew food, swallow it, it goes into our esophagus, and it should go down into the stomach to spend time getting digested," says Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, a gastroenterologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital who is also director of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at Weill Cornell Medicine. But "in some people, for a variety of reasons, the food or fluid or acid that's in the stomach may not stay in the stomach."

In fact, the awful sensation we know as heartburn is just one symptom of acid reflux, a common condition in which stuff from your stomach finds its way upwards, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says. The good news: There are some very simple things you can do to make it happen less frequently.

Most commonly, reflux happens because the sphincter at the bottom of your esophagus weakens or relaxes too often, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman explains. When that happens, the sphincter can't keep what's in your stomach from getting into the esophagus — where it can cause that classic burning sensation and, possibly, do some damage to the esophageal lining.

That definitely sounds kind of gross and scary, but reflux is actually incredibly common, even among babies and kids. People who are pregnant often experience reflux, because the growing uterus puts extra pressure on the stomach. Weight gain can make reflux more likely for similar reasons.

For most people, a little heartburn every once in a while isn't anything to worry about. Although it's unpleasant, over-the-counter medications and (if necessary) changes in diet are enough to treat most cases, explains Dr. Schnoll-Sussman.

"However, there are some negative consequences of long-standing reflux," she says. If your reflux becomes chronic, it turns into gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause inflammation, scarring, or ulcers in the esophagus. The most worrying possibility, though, is the development of a condition called Barret's esophagus, which, in a small subset of patients, can go on to become esophageal cancer.

So, if you have reflux that doesn't go away no matter what you do, or you notice you're starting to have trouble swallowing, or you have to change the size of the food you eat in order to swallow, see your doctor. She can do tests, prescribe medications, and suggest diet changes to help get your esophagus back in working order before you develop even more serious complications.

But, again, over-the-counter remedies and small changes do the trick for most people. So, click through to see a few of Dr. Schnoll-Sussman's tips for preventing and treating that awful feeling.

produced by Erin Yamagata; modeled by Micaela Verrelien; photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
Call your doctor.

If your heartburn is severe or becomes more frequent than usual, or if it comes with nausea, vomiting, or an inability to swallow, give your doctor a call to make sure it's not a sign of a more serious issue.
Photographed by Eric Helgas.
Stop eating that meal.

If you're having heartburn while eating a meal, the first step is to just stop eating. Not all reflux can be blamed on food choices, says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman, but if you notice you get heartburn consistently after having the same foods, consider cutting back on those. The classic foods to watch out for include coffee, alcohol, chocolate, peppermint, tomato-based products, and any fried or otherwise fatty foods.
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Try over-the-counter meds.

It may seem obvious, but over-the-counter medications can ease the vast majority of reflux episodes — and there's a ton of variety out there you may not have thought about. Seriously, we're not just talkin' Tums. There are also medications that reduce the production of acid (e.g. Zantac, Pepcid) and those that help heal the esophagus (e.g. Prilosec).

However, if you're still having issues after trying these for 14 days, it's worth checking in with your doctor to see if it's time to bring out the big, prescription guns, such as stronger proton-pump inhibitors, which reduce acid production.
Photographed by Kate McCurdy.
Don't forget to drink water.

As with most gastrointestinal issues, one key to preventing reflux is to keep things moving along. And drinking water is a huge piece of that. But, if you're experiencing heartburn right this second, drinking water can make you feel better because it will wash some of the irritating acid out of the esophagus, explains Dr. Scholl-Sussman.
Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Don't eat right before bed.

It's much, much easier for reflux to happen if you lay down right after eating because you no longer have gravity on your side. So, not eating before you go to bed (when you know you're going to be laying down for a while) is "single-handedly the best thing you can do," says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. She advises patients not to eat for at least an hour before going to bed, but ideally that's two hours.
Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Go for a walk after eating.

"Food typically exits the stomach within half an hour," explains Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. But, for some people, the process takes a little longer. And that backup can create the perfect conditions for reflux. "For those people, just taking a simple walk can absolutely help with the movement of the food," she says.