Indigestion after eating or drinking is something we all experience from time and time, and it’s usually nothing to worry about. Indigestion rarely causes severe symptoms, and can be easily treated at home with remedies available from a pharmacy.
If you’re getting indigestion regularly, it may be a good idea to make some lifestyle changes such as cutting back on caffeine and spicy foods. Occasionally, indigestion can be a sign of a more serious condition, so in certain circumstances (described below) it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor.
What are the symptoms of indigestion?
Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, has some easily recognisable symptoms.
The key symptom is heartburn or acid reflux, a burning sensation in the upper chest that might be accompanied by an acidic taste in the mouth. In addition you might feel very full and bloated, and suffer from nausea and flatulence.
It’s unusual for indigestion to cause pain in the stomach or back – these tend to indicate constipation.
What causes indigestion?
The acid in your stomach that digests your food can sometimes irritate your digestive system, causing pain, discomfort, and a burning sensation in your chest.
Certain foods and drinks are known to trigger indigestion. You are also more likely to experience symptoms if you have drunk a lot of alcohol, or if you have been using certain medicines such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
Typically, indigestion is a one-off, rather than recurring, problem. However, there are a number of conditions that can cause recurring episodes. Conditions that can cause persistent indigestion include:
- Gastro-oesophageal disease (GORD) – where stomach acid moves up into the throat causing regular bouts of heartburn
- Hiatus hernia – where part of your stomach moves up into your chest
- Stomach ulcer – an open sore on the lining of the stomach
- Stomach cancer
- Infections such as Helicobacter pylori
Indigestion is also a common side effect of pregnancy. This is thought to be caused by changing hormone levels, but also because of increased pressure on the digestive system.
How can I treat a bout of indigestion?
You can treat a bout of indigestion by taking antacids. These are medicines that neutralise the acid in the stomach and help to prevent pain and burning. They are available in pharmacies without a prescription. Antacids can be taken to prevent indigestion, or once symptoms have started.
If you find that antacids don’t help with your indigestion, you can request omeprazole over the counter from your pharmacist. This is a proton pump inhibitor that prevents your stomach from producing acid. Over-the-counter proton pump inhibitors can be taken for four weeks.
When should I speak to a doctor?
Because there are some serious medical conditions that can cause indigestion, it’s advised that you speak to a doctor if any of the following apply:
- You keep getting indigestion
- Your indigestion is very painful
- You’re over the age of 55
- You’ve had unexplained weight loss
- You’re having trouble swallowing
- You keep vomiting
- You have iron deficiency anaemia
- It feels like there’s a lump in your stomach
- There’s blood in your vomit or faeces
Depending upon the cause of your indigestion, your doctor may prescribe certain medicines. Antibiotics will be required if your indigestion has been caused by a bacterial infection such as Helicobacter pylori.
Your doctor may prescribe a proton pump inhibitor that can be taken for a longer period of time. Alternatively they might recommend an H2 receptor-antagonist, which works in a similar way to proton pump inhibitors.
You can book an online consultation with Doctor Care Anywhere to discuss your indigestion symptoms and get advice on treatment.
How can I prevent indigestion?
If you’re particularly prone to indigestion, there are a few things you can do to try and avoid a bout of symptoms:
- Cut back on foods and drinks that trigger your symptoms e.g. coffee, alcohol, spicy foods, chocolate
- Leave at least three hours between eating and going to bed
- Sleep at an angle with your head slightly raised – you should do this by lifting up the head of your bed
- If you’re a smoker, try to quit or cut back
- Avoid taking ibuprofen or aspirin as these can make symptoms worse
- If you’re overweight, try to lose some weight
- Indigestion can be worsened by stress, so it can be a good idea to practise relaxation techniques.
Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP