Updated 24 June 2014

Is it heartburn or is it something more serious?

If you suffer from heartburn, you should learn to distinguish between the normal symptoms of heartburn and symptoms of something more serious.

It must be remembered that GORD is a condition and heartburn its most prominent symptom.

If you suffer from heartburn, you should learn to distinguish between the normal symptoms of heartburn and symptoms of something more serious.

The main symptom of heartburn

The main symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in the throat and chest, often after a meal consisting of spicy and fatty foods. Sometimes food also is regurgitated into the oesophagus, which is sometimes accompanied by painful swallowing or difficulty swallowing.

Why does this reflux happen?

This happens when the lower oesophageal sphinctre weakens or relaxes and allows acid and stomach contents to get regurgitated into the oesophagus. The oesophagus does not have the same protective layer of mucus as the stomach, hence the burning sensation. Fried and fatty foods, certain sweets, such as chocolate and peppermint, as well as certain medications can cause a weakening of the sphinctre muscle. Chronic acid reflux can do damage to the oesophagus.

Possibly more serious conditions?

However, heartburn could also indicate other, more serious conditions, such as angina, stomach cancer, a peptic ulcer, and a hiatus hernia.

Symptoms that should alert you to the fact that something more serious is going on, include:

  • bloody stools
  • sudden unexplained weight loss
  • a loss of appetite
  • difficulty swallowing
  • vomiting blood or a grainy brown substance

Signs that you may have angina include the following:

  • Pain brought on by sudden physical activity
  • Pain that goes from your chest into your neck and your arms
  • Pain in the upper part of your stomach and in the centre of your chest
  • Any of the above symptoms as well as faintness, loss of consciousness, nausea, shortness of breath.

If you experience any of the above symptoms or none of the over-the counter medications blocking acid production, works to relieve your symptoms, you should see your doctor without delay. All of these conditions are treatable if diagnosed early – the earlier the diagnosis, the more effective the treatment.

(Picture: man with heartburn from Shutterstock)


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Heartburn expert

Monique Marais is a Gastroenterologist working in Cape Town. After qualifying at the University of Pretoria, she worked in emergency rooms in South Africa and the UK before going into private practice.

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