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How Long Does Acid Reflux Last?

cartoon man having stomach pain

Most people have experienced heartburn at some point in their lives. It’s a very common symptom of a painful burning sensation in the chest, behind the breastbone in the chest. 

The American College of Gastroenterology estimates that some 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month and 15 million daily. 

If you experience mild heartburn or an occasional acid reflux episode from time to time, it’s probably nothing to worry about. You can treat it with over-the-counter medications and home remedies. However, you might be wondering: How long does heartburn last? Please continue reading to find out.

What’s the difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)?

First, let’s take a quick look at three terms—acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD—which are often used interchangeably. While all three are similar digestive tract conditions, there are subtle differences between them.

Acid reflux is the backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus. The esophagus or food pipe is a tube in the upper GI tract that connects the throat to the stomach. During an episode of acid reflux, you experience a burning sensation in the chest called heartburn. Therefore, acid reflux is a physical event, and heartburn is a symptom caused by acid reflux.

In some people, acid reflux can progress to a more severe form called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This condition is associated with chronic acid reflux and chronic heartburn two or more times a week. 

Other symptoms of GERD can include regurgitation of a sour liquid or food, a bitter or sour taste, coughing, difficulty swallowing, wheezing, and chest pain. Symptoms of GERD occur especially after eating spicy foods, eating large meals, and when lying down or bending over.

What causes acid reflux?

In healthy individuals, a muscle at the bottom of the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) acts as a valve, allowing food to pass from the esophagus to the stomach and then closing to prevent a backflow of stomach contents and stomach acid into the esophagus. 

In some people, the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes or does not close properly, emptying stomach acid into the esophagus. This is called acid reflux or acid indigestion, and it causes a symptom called heartburn. 

Occasional heartburn is common, but severe heartburn, chronic acid reflux, and symptoms of GERD should be evaluated and treated. Untreated GERD can lead to chronic inflammation, permanent damage to the esophagus, Barrett’s esophagus, and other serious complications.

Certain foods are trigger foods for acid reflux and GERD symptoms because they increase acid production. These include spicy foods, fried foods, chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages, tomatoes, citrus fruits, and onions.

Risk factors for experiencing heartburn include hiatal hernia, a condition in which the stomach bulges into the chest cavity, obesity, and the use of certain medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs. Pregnant women are also at higher risk.

How long do heartburn symptoms last?

How long an episode of acid reflux lasts varies from person to person. In some people, heartburn caused by acid reflux lasts for just a few minutes, while in others it can persist for hours. Even when heartburn symptoms subside, they can return after several hours if you lie down or bend over.

In general, heartburn symptoms go away once the food that caused them has been digested. It usually takes 2-5 hours for the food to go out of the stomach and small intestine. 

How can I reduce heartburn symptoms?

Medications for Heartburn and GERD Symptoms

Several over-the-counter medications can help to relieve heartburn symptoms. These include:

If over-the-counter medications are not effective in controlling symptoms of GERD, your doctor may give you prescription medications to treat GERD, which have higher doses than the OTC versions.

Lifestyle Changes for Heartburn Prevention

  • Avoid spicy, fried, and acidic foods.
  • Avoid eating large meals.
  • Don’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
  • Raise the head of your bed on wooden blocks by 6 inches.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Try losing weight and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes.

Home Remedies for Heartburn

  • Chewing sugar-free gum for 30 minutes after a meal can increase saliva production and reduce acid reflux.
  • Sucking on peppermint candy or drinking peppermint tea can help relax the stomach but peppermint can increase heartburn symptoms in some people.
  • Ginger candy or ginger tea can help soothe inflammation in the esophagus and stomach.
  • Baking soda can help to neutralize stomach acid, but it can be unpalatable.
  • Milk can buffer the acid in the stomach, but full-fat milk can make heartburn worse.

When to see a doctor for heartburn symptoms?

While it is perfectly okay to treat occasional heartburn with over-the-counter medications, changes in eating habits, and home remedies, you should seek professional medical advice if you are experiencing GERD symptoms more than twice a week or if your symptoms are not controlled with OTC medication. Your doctor may give you a prescription medication and/or order tests to investigate what’s causing your severe symptoms. 

Wrapping Up

Heartburn is a burning chest pain that occurs when acid produced in the stomach backflows into the esophagus. Sometimes, heartburn lasts just a few minutes, while at other times, it can last for a few hours until the food in the stomach has been digested. 

You can use OTC medicines, home remedies, and lifestyle changes to treat and prevent occasional heartburn. However, you should see a healthcare provider and seek medical treatment if you have persistent heartburn and OTC medications are unable to prevent reflux.


References:

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heartburn/expert-answers/heartburn-gerd/faq-20057894#
  2. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17019-gerd-or-acid-reflux-or-heartburn-overview