Occasional heartburn is not dangerous. Many people experience heartburn or acid reflux at one point or another. However, if a person experiences heartburn regularly, it may cause damage or lead to complications.
Frequent heartburn may be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Without treatment, GERD can
Keep reading to learn more about whether heartburn is dangerous.
When infrequent or over a short period of time, heartburn is rarely dangerous. It typically only causes temporary discomfort and should pass on its own. However, if a person experiences heartburn regularly, this may be due to GERD.
GERD is a common disorder that affects between 15 and 20% of people in the United States. It occurs when the ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus does not close properly, allowing the contents of the stomach to flow up the esophagus, or food pipe.
Unlike occasional heartburn, GERD may cause damage to the esophagus, the throat, and the teeth, due to exposure to stomach acid.
If a person is experiencing heartburn more than two or more times a week and it is disrupting their everyday life, this may be a sign of GERD.
Heartburn is common during pregnancy, occurring in up to
One of the reasons heartburn occurs in pregnancy is progesterone. During pregnancy, people have higher levels of this hormone in their blood, and this relaxes the functional valve between the esophagus and stomach. This allows acid to travel back up the esophagus.
Additionally, as the fetus begins to grow, it applies pressure to the stomach. This may also contribute to heartburn or acid reflux later in pregnancy.
Without treatment, persistent heartburn can put a person at higher risk of the following
- Esophagitis: This is inflammation of the esophagus, which can lead to bleeding and ulcers. Esophagitis can vary from mild to severe.
- Tooth erosion: If stomach acid often reaches the mouth, it can damage the teeth. Over time, this may lead to tooth erosion.
- Esophageal stricture: Ongoing inflammation in the esophagus can cause narrowing, which doctors call an esophageal stricture. This can cause a person to experience dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty swallowing.
- Barrett’s esophagus: This is a condition where the lining of the esophagus changes to a tissue that is similar to the lining of the intestines.
- Cancer: A small number of people who develop Barrett’s esophagus go on to get a type of cancer known as esophageal adenocarcinoma.
As well as damaging the esophagus, frequent heartburn can also cause a chronic cough, voice hoarseness, and a bitter taste in the mouth.
There is also some evidence that GERD may raise the risk of asthma or exacerbate symptoms. Research estimates that 59% of people with asthma also have GERD. However, scientists are still learning about the link.
Treatment can help reduce GERD symptoms and the risk of complications.
Despite the name, heartburn does not affect the heart. The word describes a burning sensation in the chest, but this feeling comes from the esophagus and stomach.
Treatment for heartburn can include dietary or lifestyle changes and medications. In more severe cases, a doctor may suggest surgery.
Lifestyle changes that can help a person manage heartburn include:
- eating several smaller meals throughout the day, instead of a few larger meals
- sleeping with the head slightly elevated
- maintaining a moderate weight
- reducing stress
- avoiding foods that increase levels of acid in the stomach
If a person is experiencing heartburn during their pregnancy, they may wish to consult a doctor about lifestyle changes and treatments that can help them be as comfortable as possible.
Some medications that help treat heartburn include:
- histamine blockers such as cimetidine (Tagamet) and famotidine (Pepcid)
- proton pump inhibitorssuch as esomeprazole (Nexium) and omeprazole (Prilosec)
- prokinetic agents such as cisapride (Propulsid) and metoclopramide (Reglan)
Some people with ongoing heartburn may also have surgery that aims to strengthen the valve between the stomach and the esophagus.
People with occasional or mild heartburn do not always require medical treatment. The symptoms may go away on their own or respond to over-the-counter antacids.
However, persistent heartburn does require medical attention. A doctor can identify if there is an underlying medical condition. They can also recommend treatment, which may reduce the risk of complications.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between heartburn and a heart attack, since they can both cause chest pain. If a person experiences any of the following symptoms, a person should seek emergency care immediately:
- chest pain, pressure, squeezing, or fullness that lasts for
over a few minutesor recurs
- pain in other parts of the body, such as one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, and stomach
- shortness of breath
- cold sweat
- unusual tiredness or weakness
Many people experience heartburn from time to time. When it is infrequent, this is unlikely to cause any harm. However, if a person experiences frequent heartburn, this could be a sign of GERD.
Without treatment, GERD can cause complications as a result of stomach acid damaging parts of the body. With management, it may be possible to reduce the effects of the condition.
If someone is experiencing frequent heartburn, they should speak with their doctor about possible treatment options.