One in six UK adults suffer frequent bouts of heartburn - and it takes its toll. Relief is out there though, say the experts, if you follow some simple lifestyle changes
For one in six (some 8.2 million Brits) however, it’s a frequent problem, occurring twice a week or more.
“It can have a big impact,” says GP and media medic Dr Sarah Jarvis. “As a GP, that’s something that almost everybody experiencing frequent heartburn says - it really does affect them and can really bring them down.”
A BURNING WORRY
Aside from the discomfort, there’s often anxiety too. “Frequent heartburn can leave people feeling like they have no control over the condition,” notes Helen Boardman, a pharmacist and lecturer in Pharmacy Practice at Nottingham University.
Knowing what’s safe to eat can become a worry, and this - along with the symptoms - can affect people’s social lives and stop them participating in hobbies and sports.
One of the biggest anxieties is that there’s something more sinister going on - it’s not uncommon for people to fear that they are suffering heart problems or cancer. These things combined are part of the reason why lots of people present to their GPs with heartburn.
The majority of the time, heartburn is something that can be self-managed and doesn’t really require a trip to the doctor. While some people with particularly troublesome, frequent heartburn may need a prescription, for most, symptoms can be avoided with few simple lifestyle tweaks and soothed with over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.
Until relatively recently, these were mainly antacids and alginates - which work by neutralising stomach acid or forming a protective barrier over it - and can offer speedy relief for mild symptoms, lasting a few hours.
For more intense and long-lasting symptoms, however, a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), which blocks acid production, may be more suitable. Nexium Control(R) (esomeprazole) (available from pharmacies and supermarkets, RRP £6.99 for pack of 7), previously a prescription-only drug, recently launched as an OTC; one daily tablet provides 24-hour protection.
Your pharmacist will be able to discuss which treatments may be suitable for you. However, if you’re still popping PPIs after 14 days, or symptoms are getting worse or not going, make an appointment to see your GP.
HEARTBURN GETS SERIOUS
Though heartburn generally isn’t serious, there are always exceptions, and if in doubt, get things checked - sooner rather than later.
The NHS recently launched a campaign highlighting the importance of seeing your doctor if you’ve had heartburn most days for three weeks or more in a row, as it could be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer (find out more here: www.nhs.uk/be-clear-on-cancer/oesophagogastric-cancer/home).
That’s also why you should make an appointment if your symptoms are worse, or lingering, after two straight weeks of taking OTC treatments.
It’s extremely rare for these cancers to occur where heartburn is the only symptom - usually there are other warning signs too, like sudden weight-loss, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, pain or swelling - but it’s always wise to check.