Heartburn and indigestion are different. Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest due to acid from the stomach traveling up the esophagus. Indigestion is a group of symptoms that affect the gastrointestinal system.
Heartburn is a painful, burning sensation in the chest which occurs when stomach acid flows back up the esophagus.
The esophagus does not have the same layers as the stomach to protect it against stomach acid, so people may feel a painful, burning sensation from the acid as it touches the lining of the esophagus.
Indigestion is a range of gastrointestinal symptoms which occur at the same time. Indigestion can cause pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, feeling full after not eating much, or feeling uncomfortable after eating. The medical term for indigestion is dyspepsia.
This article looks at the similarities and differences of heartburn and indigestion, as well as causes, treatment, prevention, and when to see a doctor.
The following table shows which symptoms may be present for heartburn, indigestion, or both:
|Pain or burning sensation in chest||x|
|Pain or burning sensation in upper abdomen||x|
|Unpleasant taste in mouth||x|
|Symptoms worsen when lying down or bending over||x||x|
|Feeling full after not eating much||x|
The following are causes of indigestion and heartburn.
The lower esophageal sphincter is a muscle between the esophagus and stomach. The lower esophageal sphincter allows food and liquid to pass into the stomach and prevents contents of the stomach traveling back up the esophagus.
If the lower esophageal sphincter loosens or weakens, it may allow stomach acid to travel up the esophagus and cause heartburn. This may happen due to:
- having overweight or obesity
- smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke
Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) may cause heartburn. GER may occur due to a hiatal hernia or certain medications, such as:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- calcium channel blockers
- tricyclic antidepressants
- some asthma medications
- drinking too many alcoholic drinks
- drinking too much coffee or other caffeinated drinks
- drinking too many fizzy drinks
- eating too fast or too much
- eating spicy or fatty foods
- eating acidic foods, such as tomatoes and oranges
Certain health conditions can also cause indigestion, including:
- acid reflux
- irritable bowel syndrome
- gallbladder inflammation
- lactose intolerance
- peptic ulcer disease
- stomach cancer
Certain medications, such as antibiotics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also cause indigestion.
Treating the cause of acid reflux may help resolve heartburn. Treatment may include:
- achieving and maintaining a healthy BMI
- elevating the head whilst sleeping by using an extra pillow or soft wedge
- avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol
- avoiding certain foods and drinks that trigger heartburn
- over-the-counter (OTC) antacids
- OTC or prescription H2 blockers, which are a medication to reduce stomach acid
- OTC or prescription proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are medications to reduce stomach acid, and may be more effective than H2 blockers
People can discuss possible side effects of medications with a doctor, and whether they are safe to take long-term. People can also speak with a doctor about changing a medication if it might be causing heartburn.
Treatment for indigestion may include:
- avoiding food and drinks that cause indigestion
- managing stress
- eating more slowly
- avoiding or quitting smoking
- antibiotics, if a bacterial infection is causing indigestion
- prokinetics, or medications to help the stomach empty more quickly into the intestines
- H2 blockers or PPIs to reduce stomach acid
People may be able to prevent heartburn by:
- maintaining a healthy weight
- avoiding lying down until at least 3 hours after eating
- avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke
Avoiding certain foods and drinks may help to prevent heartburn. Certain foods and drinks which may trigger or worsen symptoms of GER and GERD include:
- citrus fruits, tomatoes, and other acidic foods
- fatty foods
- spicy foods
People may be able to prevent indigestion by:
- eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day
- eating low fat foods, and limiting spicy, greasy foods
- eating more slowly and chewing well
- limiting or avoiding caffeine, soda, and alcohol
- avoiding medications which may cause indigestion, such as aspirin and NSAIDs
- avoiding or quitting smoking
- managing stress and getting enough rest
- exercising before eating
People may be able to treat mild or occasional heartburn and indigestion at home. If symptoms do not improve with lifestyle changes or OTC treatments, people can contact a doctor.
If people have persistent heartburn or think they may have GERD, they will need to see a doctor. People will also need to contact a doctor for any of the following symptoms:
- chest pain
- loss of appetite
- pain or difficulty swallowing
- frequent vomiting
- vomit which looks like coffee grounds or contains blood
- blood in stools or black, tarry stools
- unexplained weight loss
People will need to contact a doctor if they have any of the following:
- sudden, sharp abdominal pain
- difficulty breathing
- pain spreading to the jaw, neck, or arm
- jaundice, which is a yellowing of the eyes or skin
Heartburn is a burning, painful sensation in the middle of the chest which occurs from stomach acid traveling back up the esophagus. Indigestion is a collection of gastrointestinal symptoms.
Certain foods, drinks, lifestyle habits, and medications may cause heartburn or indigestion. In some cases, heartburn or indigestion may be a sign of an underlying medical condition.
People may be able to treat heartburn and indigestion with home remedies. If symptoms are severe, do not improve, or get worse, people will need to see a doctor.