July 10, 2019

A surgeon answers your most pressing questions about finding quick heartburn relief


Maybe you washed down that order of hot chicken with a new sour beer, or the citrusy dressing on your salad is giving you more than you bargained for. Heartburn can creep up at the worst of times. It may all of a sudden pop up when you’re enjoying an evening out with friends or after an office lunch just as you’re about to give a presentation. That’s when you need quick heartburn relief.

Heartburn occurs when stomach acid rises into the esophagus. Typically, when we swallow, a sphincter around the bottom of the esophagus temporarily relaxes to let food pass into the stomach. Then it tightens again to keep the contents from coming back up. Some foods and beverages may cause the sphincter to relax too much. In some individuals the muscle is weakened, allowing acid to rise and cause the burn.

So what can you do to ease the pain? We asked Chetan Aher, M.D., a general surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to answer questions on how to put out the flames on heartburn — and when to see your doctor for better symptom control.


What is a good go-to heartburn reliever?

“I recommend that people keep some Tums around. Almost everybody gets some small amount of heartburn at some point. And Tums are just a good thing to have around in the house. A type of medication that is going to give you more immediate relief on top of Tums is something like Pepcid or Zantac. Those are the drugs that are going to work for relieving heartburn fast.”


How can I find relief if I’m at a restaurant and I don’t have Tums with me?

“If you can get your hands on some milk or dairy, that will help to coat the esophagus. Then avoid consuming any additional spicy or acidic foods, because those types of foods tend to worsen the symptoms of reflux.”


What meds should I take if I get heartburn frequently?

“Proton-pump inhibitors are in another class and are stronger. Prilosec or Nexium are available over the counter. Those are great drugs, but they’re much better for maintenance. If you take a Prilosec, it doesn’t really do anything for you for 24 hours. It’s not a medication to be taken as needed. It’s more of a maintenance medication.”


Should I try home remedies?

“Anybody who has seen the fifth-grade science project where you mix baking soda and vinegar knows that if you mix some of these home remedies together you’re going to end up with a result you don’t want. When people are in pain and looking for quick heartburn relief, they get desperate. It is really important to avoid those kinds of things, which is why I recommend sticking with Tums or something that neutralizes acid.”


Should I elevate my head before bed if I’m experiencing a heartburn episode?

“Propping yourself up on pillows can help with symptom control. If  you’re doing this even a few times a month, however, this type of reflux needs a doctor’s checkup.”


When should I see my physician about heartburn?

“If you need more than one medication class or more than one pill a day, push your physician to investigate. The vast majority of people just need medication. But one of the big issues we see is that patients are really not sent for investigation, and they should be because there are options that can help prevent progression, prevent further major problems, and improve the quality of life.”

Woman eating a healthy plate of salad greens with sarcastic expression on her face.

If you experience heartburn frequently, you may need more care than over-the-counter medicines can provide. Vanderbilt digestive and surgical specialists can diagnose and treat reflux and other conditions, creating a customized plan for you.

Chetan Aher, M.D., is assistant professor of surgery in the Division of General Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. His clinical areas of interest include surgical treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, hiatal hernia, achalasia and surgical weight loss. His research interests include outcomes after esophageal myotomy, changes in cognition after weight loss surgery, and the effect of quality and process improvement on patient care delivery and outcomes.