How to manage your heartburn at Christmas

While Christmas this year may be a bit different from usual, whatever the restrictions in our area, we should be able to tuck into our favourite festive fayre. But those prone to heartburn may need to be a little more cautious or plan ahead to mitigate or avoid symptoms.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is a very unpleasant, burning sensation that is felt in the middle of the chest. It's often accompanied by an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Heartburn may also cause bloating or make you feel sick.

Heartburn is caused by stomach acid coming up the throat (acid reflux), so you may experience worse symptoms shortly after eating, when lying down or even when bending over.

Who gets heartburn?

Anyone can get heartburn, particularly after a large meal. But certain factors can make you more prone to the condition. These include pregnancy, stress, certain medications (including anti-inflammatory painkillers), excess weight, or a type of hernia known as a hiatus hernia.

It may also be triggered by certain foods, such as alcohol, fatty foods, chocolate and citrus fruit - all foods many people expect to enjoy during a traditional Christmas. And wearing clothes that constrict your tummy, such as tight belts or trousers, girdles or dresses, can all make you more prone to heartburn.

How to manage symptoms

The good news for those prone to heartburn is that steps can be taken to mitigate the problem. One way is, of course, to avoid foods that trigger a reaction, and to avoid overeating. However, at Christmas - a time when many of us allow ourselves a treat or two - this may not feel like a workable solution.

If you do decide to indulge in your favourite foods, or feel obliged to take part in family festivities, there are steps you can take to minimise the risk of developing symptoms. For example, if you are going to drink alcohol, make sure you don't do this on an empty stomach.

"Alcoholic drinks are particularly triggering for those prone to heartburn. To mitigate this, you might want to have something first to coat your stomach a bit. You might want to have something milky for instance or something bread-like to give you some protection before this wave of acid-stimulating food," agrees Doctor Jeff Foster, GP and men's health specialist.

In addition, "try to space meals out and avoid eating just before you go to bed, as lying down may trigger or worsen the problem," advises Foster.

Medications

Heartburn can often by managed by taking antacid medication to relieve the symptoms. But if you are almost certain to suffer heartburn during this time, there are also preventative remedies that should help you to avoid the problem altogether.

"Medications such as omeprazole or esomeprazole can reduce the production of stomach acid,” explains Foster. “This type of medication can be extremely helpful for those prone to heartburn and can be bought without prescription from your pharmacist."

If your heartburn is hard to control, or you want to reduce the stress of having to manage symptoms, it might be worth investing in some preventative medication. Ask your pharmacist for recommendation and advice.

Longer term

As with many forms of festive indulgence, taking preventative measures to ensure your Christmas isn't ruled by heartburn won't do you any harm. But it's not behaviour you should continue over the longer term.

This is because while heartburn is common, persistent or long-term heartburn needs to be checked out properly. You may feel fine on preventative medication, but it shouldn't be taken for too long without proper medical consultation as it may simply be masking a more serious problem.

When to seek help

Certain symptoms that go along with heartburn should always trigger making an appointment with your doctor. They include:

  • New heartburn, upper tummy pain or indigestion accompanied by unexpected weight loss.
  • Heartburn accompanied by problems swallowing or food sticking when you swallow it.
  • Vomiting up blood or black 'coffee grounds'.
  • Feeling or being sick along with new heartburn or indigestion (if you're 55 or older).

"If you start to get heartburn regularly, you should see your GP within a month," advises Dr Foster. "We can all be susceptible to this and other kinds of indigestion - if we eat something that's hard to digest or eat too quickly, for example. But most of us feel better the next day. Persistent symptoms need to be checked out properly."

Dr Foster also advises that you make an appointment with your GP if your heartburn doesn't respond to antacid treatment, as this may mean the discomfort you are experiencing isn't being caused by excess acid but may be a symptom of another condition. "If your heartburn doesn't get better on antacid therapy, then it's a red flag," he explains. "You need to speak to your GP and get checked out properly."

For sufferers, heartburn can make a happy occasion into an unpleasant and painful time. If you know you are prone to heartburn and feel you may trigger the condition over Christmas, it's worth taking steps beforehand to minimise or avoid the problem. However, if your heartburn continues over a longer period, or doesn't respond to medication, you need to make sure you consult your GP.

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