Is it heartburn or something more serious?

The main symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in the throat and chest, often after a enjoying a meal of spicy and/or fatty foods.

Sometimes, food is also regurgitated into the oesophagus – a process that could be accompanied by painful swallowing or difficulty swallowing.

Regurgitation occurs when the lower oesophageal sphinctre weakens or relaxes, allowing acid and stomach contents to move upwards into the oesophagus. The oesophagus doesn’t 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. 

It’s important to realise that chronic acid reflux (also known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, or GORD) can do permanent damage to the oesophagus.

Something more serious?

Heartburn could point to other, more serious conditions such as angina, stomach cancer, a peptic ulcer or 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.

• Vomitting blood or a grainy brown substance.

Signs that you may have angina include:

• 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.