You’ve just finished eating lunch and start to get a burning, bloated sensation in your upper abdomen and chest. You’ve felt this before, but aren’t exactly sure what it is. As you mentally debate between treating it like heartburn vs. indigestion, you may wonder: “Aren’t they the same thing?”

Short answer: They’re not. But it can be tough to tell the difference between heartburn and indigestion sometimes. “Indigestion is often used as a broad blanket term of having symptoms after eating. It can sometimes cause a burning feeling, so some people do confuse it with heartburn,” says Wendi LeBrett, MD, a gastroenterologist in Los Angeles, California. To add to this confusion, it’s also possible to have heartburn while you’re having indigestion, too.


Experts In This Article


Learn more about what causes both conditions here, plus lifestyle remedies to soothe that bloated, burning feeling in your gut.

In This Article

What is indigestion?

Indigestion is basically another name for an upset stomach. (Doctors call it dyspepsia.) It’s a symptom of an underlying problem, not a condition in itself. “It’s this sensation of feeling uncomfortable. It tends to be localized to the upper abdomen,” says Dr. LeBrett.

The most common indigestion symptoms include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Feeling full sooner than usual, like you can’t eat your normal amount
  • Uncomfortable fullness after eating
  • Pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen, beneath your breastbone but above your bellybutton. (This can sometimes be felt as a burning sensation in your upper left or upper right abdomen for some people.)
  • Bloating or tightness in your upper abdomen
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Burping

What is heartburn?

Heartburn or acid reflux happens when digestive acids from your stomach flow up into your esophagus or throat. “It can cause a burning sensation in your chest, more around your heart area than your abdomen,” says Dr. LeBrett.

Heartburn symptoms can include the following, according to the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Acid, food, or liquids backing up into your throat after you eat
  • Sour taste in your mouth
  • Burning in your throat or chest
  • Nausea
  • Sore throat (from the acid irritating your throat tissue)

You’re more likely to notice heartburn symptoms when you’re lying down or bending over, btw. In those positions, you don’t have the advantage of gravity helping to keep the acid down in your stomach, says Dr. LeBrett.

Causes of heartburn vs. indigestion

Even though indigestion and heartburn can sometimes feel the same, they’re triggered by different things:

What causes indigestion?

There are a number of things that can stir up indigestion. If it only happens once in a while, it probably comes down to lifestyle factors or dietary triggers, says Dr. LeBrett. Think eating a heavy meal (burger and beer, anyone?) or eating too fast. Antibiotics can also be a short-term culprit.

Indigestion that happens regularly, though, is usually caused by an underlying health issue, says Dr. LeBrett. That could be:

  • Gastritis
  • Ulcer
  • Anxiety
  • Celiac disease
  • Constipation
  • Pancreatitis
  • Intestinal blockage
  • In rare cases, stomach cancer

What causes heartburn?

Your stomach’s digestive juices can flow back into your esophagus or throat when your lower esophageal sphincter—the valve in between your stomach and your esophagus—becomes weak or doesn’t close all the way, per Dr. LeBrett. This phenomenon is often called acid reflux.

From there, feelings of heartburn can ensue. Some common acid reflux causes include the following, per the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Excess pressure around your stomach, from having overweight, pregnancy, or wearing tight clothes (which can cause heartburn when exercising)
  • Eating a large or heavy meal
  • Indigestion or gas, which can put pressure around your stomach
  • Eating acidic foods or drinks like coffee, chocolate, citrus fruits, or tomato
  • Lying down after eating
  • Certain medications, including birth control pills or blood pressure medications
  • Smoking
  • Hiatal hernia (when your stomach pushes up through your diaphragm)

How to treat heartburn and indigestion

Heartburn and indigestion relief will look pretty similar, but there are some subtle differences depending on the symptoms you’re feeling.

Indigestion treatment

Dyspepsia relief (aka, indigestion relief) often involves avoiding heavier meals and sticking with light, bland foods—like bananas, applesauce, or toast—until your symptoms ease up, says Dr. LeBrett. She’s also a fan of walking after eating, which helps move food out of your stomach faster.

“You can also try digestion-promoting teas like ginger or peppermint tea,” she adds. Some of the best herbs for indigestion also include chamomile, fennel, and licorice, per Harvard Health Publishing.

Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids are also highly effective for soothing indigestion. A few of the most common include the following, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK):

  • Calcium carbonate (TUMS, Rolaids)
  • Loperamide (Imodium)
  • Simethicone (Mylanta, Gas-X)
  • sodium bicarbonate (Alka-Seltzer)

These can be especially helpful if your indigestion is also causing a burning sensation in your upper abdomen or other heartburn-like symptoms, per the NIDDK.

All that said, if your indigestion is caused by an underlying health issue, talk to your doctor about pinpointing the root cause and managing that condition. If the indigestion is from an infection, they may prescribe antibiotics, for instance. Or if it seems to stem from anxiety, they can refer you to a therapist for support.

Heartburn treatment

Making changes to what you eat (and when you eat) can help keep heartburn at bay, or make it less of a daily issue, says Dr. LeBrett. (More on those in a minute.)

Because heartburn and indigestion symptoms can feel similar, trying an OTC antacid can be your first line of defense. If however, your heartburn is persistent, your doctor can give you a prescription-strength antacid, or other types of medications called proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers, which reduce the amount of acid in your stomach, per the Mayo Clinic.

Some common OTC and prescription heartburn medications include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Calcium carbonate (TUMS, Rolaids)
  • Cimetidine (Tagamet HB)
  • Famotidine (Pepcid, Pepcid-AC)
  • Esomeprazole (Nexium 24HR)
  • Lansoprazole (Prevacid 24HR)
  • Omeprazole (Prilosec OTC)

Your doctor can help you decide which type of medication is right for you.

“Some of the same measures will work to prevent both heartburn and indigestion, like eating smaller meals, avoiding trigger foods, and walking after eating.” —Wendi LeBrett, MD, gastroenterologist

Can you prevent heartburn or indigestion?

Very often, yes. And because indigestion can cause heartburn-like symptoms, “some of the same measures will work to prevent both, like eating smaller meals, avoiding foods that trigger your symptoms, and walking after eating,” says Dr. LeBrett.

Other lifestyle prevention tips include the following, per Dr. LeBrett:

  • Try to avoid eating within two to three hours of going to sleep.
  • If you get heartburn and indigestion at night, use a second pillow when lying down to prop up your head. (Gravity can also play a role in acid traveling upward to your throat!)
  • If you get morning indigestion, try sleeping on your left side at night, which is considered an ideal sleeping position for heartburn, too.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight for your size and height (which can help reduce the amount of pressure on your stomach, per the American College of Gastroenterology.)

What about GERD?

You may have heard the term “GERD” before—or gastroesophageal reflux disease—in reference to certain stomach issues. But is GERD different from any of the issues above? Kind of.

GERD is basically a more severe form of acid reflux that happens on a regular basis. If you’re having heartburn or reflux symptoms more than two times per week or are getting severe symptoms from your heartburn (like coughing, trouble swallowing, chest pain, or wheezing), you could have GERD, per the Cleveland Clinic.

You might be able to improve your GERD symptoms with lifestyle changes similar to the ones recommended for reducing acid reflux. But if that’s not enough, your doctor might recommend a prescription antacid to neutralize (or reduce) the acid in your stomach.

When to see a doctor

The occasional bout of indigestion or heartburn isn’t typically cause for concern. But you should loop your doctor in if you’re having symptoms regularly, to figure out what might be driving the problem and how to treat it, recommends Dr. LeBrett.

Of course, you should also see your doctor if your stomach pain and symptoms are severe. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can include the following:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Repeated vomiting or vomiting blood
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Trouble swallowing that isn’t getting better
  • Weakness or fatigue, which could be signs of anemia

FAQ

How can you tell the difference between indigestion and a heart attack?

To be honest, this is not always easy. Heart attacks can often cause upper abdominal pain, chest pain that radiates down towards your upper abdomen, or even nausea, especially in women and older adults, says Dr. LeBrett.

If you’ve had a similar feeling before and it’s already been evaluated by a doctor (who’s determined it was indigestion or acid reflux), you might feel more comfortable waiting it out to see if the problem eases up. But if it’s an unusual thing for you, it isn’t going away, or it’s getting worse, definitely go the nearest ER as soon as possible. “If it’s new or different, seek medical care,” advises Dr. LeBrett.

What causes a burning sensation in the right upper abdomen?

It might be acid reflux or indigestion, which can both cause discomfort in that vague area between the bottom of your chest and the top of your stomach.

If the pain is severe or isn’t going away, it could potentially be a more serious problem like liver disease, pancreatitis, an enlarged spleen, a kidney infection, or even a heart or lung problem, according to the Cleveland Clinic. So definitely get it checked out by a doctor as soon as possible.

Source: Well and Good

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