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Heartburn heartache

As the festive season is fast approaching so is the incidences of heartburn. Heartburn (gastro-oesophageal reflux or indigestion) is very common. Most of us will experience heartburn at some point – whether it’s from eating and drinking too much or after a big meal, or from undertaking strenuous activity too soon after eating, or as a symptom of pregnancy.

Heartburn is caused by the contents of the stomach coming back up into the oesophagus (the ‘food pipe’), resulting in a burning sensation in the chest or throat. As the stomach contents are mixed with stomach acid, digestive enzymes and chemicals, the regurgitation or backwash causes a burning feeling. This is generally described by reflux sufferers as beginning in the stomach or lower chest and moving upwards behind the breastbone towards the neck or throat. Persistent reflux that occurs more than twice a week is referred to as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), and can eventually lead to more serious health problems. Ongoing treatment and management is usually necessary.

Three types of medicines are available in Australia to treat the symptoms of heartburn and reflux. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the best medicine for you and your symptoms, particularly if are taking any medicines for other conditions.

If you only suffer from the occasional episode of heartburn, or your symptoms are mild, over-the-counter (OTC) antacids available at your pharmacy may provide symptomatic relief. Antacids act to relieve heartburn by neutralising stomach acid. These medicines are available as tablets or liquids, and should be taken when symptoms occur. Antacids may have an effect on other medicines you may be taking.

If you experience occasional, but regular, heartburn symptoms you may benefit from a H2-receptor antagonist. These medicines partially inhibit the secretion of acid in the stomach by blocking histamine receptors. Because less acid is being produced, you experience fewer symptoms. Some of these medicines are available without a prescription.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) reduce stomach acid by blocking acid-secreting cells. They provide more effective acid suppression than H2-receptor antagonists – relieving symptoms and allowing inflammation on the oesophagus to heal. Some PPIs can be purchased from a pharmacy OTC for short-term use.

For more information, you can get an excellent Fact Card titled Heartburn and indigestion from pharmacies that provide the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia’s (PSA) Self Care health information.

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