When you start feeling that nagging, burning pain of heartburn creeping up your chest and into your throat, you just want relief fast. Would chugging a glass of water ease that burning sensation or make it even worse?
It can vary from person to person, says Elie Abemayor, MD, chair of gastroenterology at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York.
How Water Might Help
"Heartburn is the sensation you get when stomach acid washes into your esophagus," Dr. Abemayor says. "In general, water can help if you have heartburn by moving acid back into the stomach."
Sang Hoon Kim, MD, chief of gastroenterology at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens, agrees that water can be helpful. "Water raises the pH of your stomach, [meaning it] dilutes the acid, and helps neutralize and even clear the acid in your esophagus," Dr. Kim says.
How Water Might Worsen Symptoms
Some people have what's known as refractory acid reflux — essentially, acid reflux that persists despite treatment. These folks can have symptoms with water and many other types of food and drink, Dr. Abemayor says.
You don't have to have refractory heartburn to feel symptoms after drinking water, though. "Theoretically, anything that causes the stomach to start to work can cause the sensation of heartburn," he said.
So, for some people, water may contribute to heartburn. And, just about anything can add to heartburn if you eat or drink it on a full stomach and then lie down, Dr. Abemayor explained. Acid is more likely to get pushed out of a full belly, and when you lie down, it's easier for acid to move out of the stomach.
Heartburn is a very common ailment. As many as 60 million people in the U.S. report having heartburn at least once a month, and about 15 million are estimated to have heartburn daily, the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) says.
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. This happens when the valve between your stomach and esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter, relaxes too much, explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter allows food and liquid to pass into your stomach from the esophagus and then prevents stomach contents from moving back into your esophagus. If this valve relaxes, stomach acid can move back into the esophagus, says NIDDK.
You may feel a burning pain behind your breastbone. You may also feel the discomfort in your neck and throat, the ACG says. If this happens chronically, it's known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Anyone can get heartburn, but some people may experience the discomfort more frequently, says NIDDK. Those more at risk include people who:
- Are overweight or obese
- Smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke
- Are pregnant
- Take certain medications
Read more: The 10 Worst Foods for Acid Reflux
What Triggers Heartburn
While water isn't a well-known trigger of heartburn, more common links to heartburn include a variety of other liquids and foods. According to NIDDK, these include:
- Alcoholic beverages
- Tomato-based foods
- Spicy foods
- Greasy foods
Finding Heartburn Relief
Besides changing your diet, there are other lifestyle changes you can make to ease heartburn. Quitting smoking helps quell the burn of acid reflux and improves your overall health. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help reduce heartburn symptoms, the NIDDK says.
Simple steps can help, too. Don't wear tight-fitting clothes. They can compress your stomach, forcing the acid into your esophagus. Don't eat for at least several hours before you're going to lie down. NIDDK also suggests raising the head of your bed by 6 inches. Use blocks under your bed frame, as extra pillows in bed won't do the trick.
If lifestyle changes aren't enough, there are medications that can help, NIDDK says. Take over-the-counter antacids like Tums, Rolaids or Mylanta as needed. These can usually help combat mild or moderate heartburn. There are also medications that reduce acid and offer longer-term relief, like Pepcid AC, Tagamet HB, Nexium or Prevacid.
If over-the-counter medications don't control your heartburn, talk to your doctor about prescription medications.
Read more: Can Fruit Make Your Acid Reflux Worse?
Is This an Emergency?
- Elie Abemayor, MD, chair, division of gastroenterology, Northern Westchester Hospital, Mount Kisco, New York
- Sang Hoon Kim, MD, chief, division of gastroenterology, NewYork-Presbyterian Queens
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Definition & Facts for GER & GERD”
- American College of Gastroenterology. "Acid Reflux"
- NIDDK: "Eating, Diet and Nutrition for FER and GERD"
- NIDDK: "Treatment for GER and GERD"