One-third of Americans experience heartburn at least once per month and one in 10 experience the problem almost daily.1 Heartburn is a common issue, but it is treatable.
If you think you might be experiencing heartburn, you should understand the causes, symptoms, and treatments of the condition, so you can reduce your discomfort and improve your quality of life.
Heartburn Causes and Symptoms
Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest that occurs when stomach acid seeps into the esophagus. Typically, stomach acid remains in your stomach with the help of the lower esophageal sphincter, a valve that separates your esophagus and your stomach. However, if the lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t close properly, stomach acid can leak into your esophagus.
Most people describe heartburn as a burning pain or irritation in the back of the throat. If you have heartburn, you also may feel chest pain when you bend over or lie down. A chronic cough or sore throat can be a sign of heartburn, too. These symptoms usually get worse right after eating.2
Heartburn can be caused by a variety of factors. Some foods and drinks can increase your levels of stomach acid or can cause your lower esophageal sphincter to relax too much. These include tomatoes, citrus fruits, coffee, and alcohol. Smoking and certain medications can lead to heartburn as well. Other risk factors for heartburn include a high-stress lifestyle, obesity, overeating, and pregnancy.
It’s normal to experience heartburn occasionally, but frequent heartburn could lead to complications. Stomach acid can cause long-term irritation and damage to the esophagus and can even result in problems like esophagitis and esophageal ulcers. If you regularly have heartburn, you can reduce your symptoms by making changes to your diet and lifestyle.3
You can also treat heartburn with over-the-counter medicines. While it takes time to adapt to new lifestyle habits, the effects of over-the-counter heartburn medicines are immediate. They are also usually much cheaper and more convenient than prescription medications.
To help, here are five of the best over-the-counter solutions for heartburn.
Tums is an antacid made with calcium carbonate, which neutralizes stomach acid. This prevents the acid from causing pain and burning if it enters your esophagus. It usually starts working within minutes, so it’s a quick solution if you’re currently experiencing heartburn.4
Tums is an inexpensive over-the-counter treatment for heartburn. At most pharmacies, a bottle with 72 tablets costs between $6 and $10.5 You can purchase Tums in a capsule, chewable tablet, or liquid forms. Most forms of Tums can be taken three or four times a day, but you should not take the medicine regularly for more than two weeks.
Nexium is a proton pump inhibitor, or PPI. It treats heartburn by reducing the amount of stomach acid your body produces. When you have less acid in your stomach, the risk of acid entering your esophagus greatly decreases.6 One of the best benefits of Nexium is that it provides 24-hour relief, so you only have to take one dose a day to reduce your heartburn symptoms. You can buy Nexium in capsule form or as a powder that mixes into water.
A pack of 30 doses of Nexium costs about $25 to $30 at most pharmacies. Although this may seem expensive, each dose lasts for 24 hours, so one pack should last you at least one month.7
Heartburn is sometimes caused by an overproduction of histamine in the body, which can lead to excess stomach acid. The active ingredient in Zantac is ranitidine, which is a type of histamine blocker. Similar to PPIs like Nexium, histamine blockers decrease your body’s production of stomach acid.8
Zantac can both prevent heartburn from occurring and reduce the symptoms after they begin. The effects last for up to 12 hours, so you can take a dose before eating and experience symptom relief all day. A 30-pack of Zantac tablets costs about $10.9
Like Zantac, Pepcid is a histamine blocker, but its active ingredient is famotidine. Original Strength Pepcid and Maximum Strength Pepcid both begin working within 15 minutes and last for about 12 hours, so they’re ideal options for preventing heartburn before it begins. Pepcid Complete contains an antacid that works within seconds, which makes it a great medicine for controlling heartburn that’s already occurring.10
You can buy a pack of 50 Maximum Strength Pepcid tablets for about $20 from most pharmacies.11 A 50-count bottle of chewable Pepcid Complete tablets costs about $15.12
Prilosec is a PPI, so it works by reducing stomach acid before heartburn occurs. One dose provides 24 hours of heartburn relief, so it’s a popular option for people with chronic heartburn. Unlike some other heartburn medicines, Prilosec is not designed to immediately relieve heartburn after it begins. Therefore, it may take a few days for you to notice a difference in your symptoms.13
Depending on the pharmacy, the price of a 30-pack of Prilosec can range from $15 to $25.14 You can take Prilosec daily for up to two weeks, but you should not take more than one course of the medicine within a four-month period.
See a Doctor if Heartburn Persists
It’s important to remember that cases of heartburn vary in severity. Some people can successfully treat their heartburn with over-the-counter medicines and simple lifestyle changes, but others may need stronger treatments.
If your symptoms persist for more than two weeks after trying over-the-counter solutions, you should speak to your doctor. Heartburn is an uncomfortable condition and severe cases can lead to serious complications if untreated. Your doctor can provide you with treatment advice or prescription medications that reduce your symptoms if over-the-counter medicines are not strong enough.