Acid Reflux / GERD GastroIntestinal / Gastroenterology

What causes heartburn and nausea?

Heartburn and nausea are both common gastrointestinal complaints, which means they have to do with the digestive system.

Heartburn is also called gastroesophageal reflux. It has nothing to do with the heart. Rather, it occurs when acid from the stomach flows backward into the esophagus — the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.

People often describe heartburn as a burning sensation just behind the breastbone. Some people also experience a bitter or sour taste in the back of the throat. The effects can last for several hours and tend to be worse after eating.

Nausea describes the urge to vomit, or be sick. The sensation may come just before vomiting or can happen on its own.

In this article, learn more about the link between heartburn and nausea, as well as possible causes of these conditions occurring at the same time.

The link between heartburn and nausea

Woman looks at plate of food but can't eat due to heartburn and nausea.
A person with indigestion may feel full more quickly than usual when eating.

Heartburn and nausea are both symptoms of indigestion, so they commonly occur at the same time.

Indigestion is also called dyspepsia. It describes a group of gut-related symptoms.

As well as heartburn and nausea, people may experience:

  • feeling full quickly while eating
  • feeling uncomfortably full after eating
  • feeling sick
  • bloating
  • burping
  • growling or gurgling in the stomach
  • gas

Indigestion is very common, affecting around a quarter of people in the United States every year.

Some people only experience indigestion from time to time, often when it occurs due to something they have eaten. Others experience it regularly. In the latter group, it can be a sign of an underlying health problem.

Causes

When someone suffers from heartburn and nausea from time to time, it is not usually anything to worry about.

These symptoms are often due to eating food that is too spicy or drinking too much alcohol. If this is the case, the symptoms tend to go away over time without treatment.

If a person experiences the symptoms more frequently, however, it could be the sign of an underlying health condition. These conditions can include the following:

1. Gastritis

Gastritis means inflammation or swelling of the stomach lining from the acidic digestive juices in the gut.

Some people will experience acute gastritis, meaning it comes on suddenly and only lasts a short time. Others have chronic gastritis, which can last for years if they do not receive treatment.

Causes of gastritis include:

  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection
  • damage to the stomach lining
  • the body’s immune system

Other symptoms include pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, nausea, and vomiting.

2. Peptic ulcer disease

A peptic ulcer, or stomach ulcer, is a sore on the lining of the stomach. Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can cause a stomach ulcer. An H. pylori infection may also lead to the problem.

The most common symptom of a peptic ulcer is a dull or burning pain anywhere between the bellybutton and the breastbone.

The pain is usually worse when the stomach is empty. It can come and go for days, weeks, or even months.

3. Medication side effects

Some medications can cause side effects that include heartburn and nausea. These include specific antibiotics and NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen.

The medication’s information leaflet or packaging will usually list any possible side effects. People can also ask their doctor or pharmacist about bothersome side effects.

4. Pregnancy

Pregnant woman with heartburn and nausea writes on sticky notes on window in office.
Heartburn and nausea can both affect women during pregnancy.

Symptoms of indigestion are common in pregnant women.

Heartburn can happen at any point during the pregnancy due to fluctuating hormones affecting the muscle that keeps food in the stomach.

This change can allow acid to move from the stomach to the esophagus.

Nausea is also a symptom of morning sickness, which is another very common occurrence in pregnancy.

Despite the name, morning sickness can happen at any time of the day or night. A person may only feel nauseated, or they may also vomit.

5. Stomach cancer

In rare cases, frequent bouts of heartburn and nausea can be a sign of stomach cancer. Other symptoms may include:

  • poor appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in the belly
  • discomfort in the belly, usually above the navel
  • feeling full after just a small meal
  • being sick
  • vomiting blood
  • a swollen belly
  • blood in the stools
  • anemia

As the American Cancer Society point out, most of these symptoms are much more likely to be due to a virus or ulcer than stomach cancer.

Treatments and home remedies

There are many ways to prevent or manage the symptoms of heartburn and nausea. These include:

Antacids

People who experience infrequent bouts of indigestion that last less than 2 weeks can manage the condition at home with antacids.

Antacids are available over the counter and online. They work by neutralizing stomach acid.

Antibiotics

People who have indigestion brought on by an infection will typically receive antibiotics from a doctor.

Proton pump inhibitors

Proton pump inhibitors, such as esomeprazole and lansoprazole, are effective at treating heartburn. They are available over the counter or with a prescription.

Lifestyle and dietary changes

People can also try to avoid the things that make indigestion more likely. These include:

  • drinking too much alcohol
  • drinking too much caffeine
  • eating too fast or too much at once
  • eating spicy, fatty, or greasy food
  • stress
  • smoking cigarettes

Anyone suffering from peptic ulcers, gastritis, or stomach cancer will likely receive a personalized treatment plan from a doctor or team of doctors.

When to see a doctor

Man experiencing unexplained weight loss alongside heartburn and nausea stands on scales.
A person who experiences unexplained weight loss alongside persistent indigestion should see a doctor.

People can usually manage heartburn and nausea at home.

However, anyone who experiences indigestion that lasts for 2 weeks should see a doctor.

Anyone whose indigestion occurs with any of the following symptoms should also seek medical attention:

  • black, tar-like stools
  • vomiting blood
  • difficult or painful swallowing
  • frequent vomiting
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in the chest, jaw, neck, or arm
  • severe, constant pain in the stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • yellowing of the eyes or skin (jaundice)

Summary

Heartburn and nausea are both symptoms of indigestion and often happen together. While they can be painful, they are not usually anything to worry about. A range of over-the-counter treatments is available to reduce symptoms.

More frequent bouts of heartburn and nausea may be a sign of an underlying health condition. Anyone with indigestion that lasts longer than 2 weeks should speak to a doctor.

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