For frequent heartburn sufferers, the abundance of rich food and drink at the myriad holiday gatherings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve can be trouble. Even those who suffer occasional heartburn can find their mild indigestion flares up more during the holidays.
Contrary to its name, heartburn, which affects 60 million Americans at least once a month, has nothing to do with the heart. It’s a digestive problem that is also called reflux esophagitis or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when contents in the stomach flow back into the esophagus. This happens when the valve between the stomach and the esophagus does not close properly.
Heartburn is most often described as a burning sensation behind the breast bone that moves up toward the neck or throat. This occurs when stomach acid irritates the normal lining of the esophagus. People may also experience acid regurgitation with heartburn, which is the sensation of stomach fluid coming up through the chest into the mouth. Less common symptoms that may also be associated with gastroesophageal reflux include unexplained chest pain, wheezing, sore throat and cough, among others.
According to some physicians, planning ahead and knowing which over-the-counter (OTC) treatments may help are essential to keep your gatherings merry and bright.
“I always recommend heartburn sufferers be prepared and bring along a few over-the-counter treatments, like antacids or H2 blockers, when they are heading out for a holiday party,” says Dr. Tom Rupp, a Michigan-licensed gastroenterologist. “With regard to specific medications or brands, I would actually recommend patients just go with a store-brand treatment. Store-brand OTCs have the same efficacy as national brands and are approved by the FDA, but cost much less.”
Allegan, Mich.-based Perrigo is a pharmaceutical company that manufactures and distributes most of the over-the-counter medications found under store-brand labels at leading retailers, grocers, club stores and pharmacies. According to Perrigo, these products are the primary treatments available over-the-counter for heartburn relief:
• Antacids. Antacids come as liquids and tablets like calcium carbonate (name brands: Rolaids and Tums)
• H2 blockers. Indicated for occasional heartburn, these medications are most effective when taken an hour before eating. Examples include famotidine and ranitidine (name brands: Pepcid and Zantac).
• Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). PPIs are indicated for people who have heartburn at least twice a week. Omeprazole (name brand: Prilosec OTC) won’t relieve heartburn right away and may take up to four days for full effect so they’re not helpful for immediate, temporary relief after you’ve already overindulged.
“For most people holiday heartburn is nothing to worry about. However, if you’re having ongoing symptoms, you need to see a doctor. The worst thing you could do is ignore chronic symptoms, hoping they’ll resolve in the New Year on their own,” Rupp says.
You can find more information about the symptoms and treatments for holiday heartburn at the National Institute of Health, or the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.