Pandemic Stress and Valentine’s Treats: A Heartburn-Inducing Duo

What first comes to mind when you think of Valentine’s Day? Whether or not you’re celebrating love, I’m sure you’ve found yourself eating your way through one too many boxes of chocolates (I know I have). But could the day that’s synonymous with candy hearts contribute to a similar-sounding ailment — that is, heartburn?

The top two causes of heartburn are certain food triggers and stress.[1] These unfortunately come together all too nicely on Valentine’s Day amid a pandemic. In the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, Americans will purchase a whopping 58 million pounds of chocolate. Combine that with the nearly 78% of Americans who say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, and this Valentine’s Day might not be looking so cheery after all — at least when it comes to your digestive health.

So what can you do if you think you might be susceptible to heartburn? First, start by knowing the symptoms and your triggers. You might recognize heartburn (also known as acid reflux) as a burning sensation in your chest or throat. Triggers may include exposure to stress or certain foods, and symptoms can last for hours afterwards and may include a hot, sour, or acidic fluid feeling in the back of your throat, as well as a lingering cough, sore throat, or hoarse voice.

Your first line of defense is to avoid the triggers that cause your heartburn, such as changing your diet and avoiding stress. But when that’s not enough, you may want to treat your symptoms with safe and effective medicine. Treating heartburn symptoms is a common conversation I have with patients, and with the additional concern people have regarding the coronavirus pandemic, they want to know which medicines are still safe to take for heartburn. With so many over-the-counter (OTC) treatment options available, it can be confusing to know which one is right for you. The key is recognizing whether you suffer from occasional or frequent heartburn.

  • For occasional heartburn (symptoms occur at least once a week), OTC antacids that contain active ingredients like sodium bicarbonate, aluminum hydroxide, and calcium carbonate, or H2 blockers that contain active ingredients like famotidine and cimetidine, help to relieve heartburn associated with acid indigestion.
  • If you suffer from frequent heartburn (symptoms occurring two or more days per week), OTC proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs, are specifically indicated to treat symptoms of frequent heartburn by blocking the production of acid at the source in your stomach. PPIs contain active ingredients like esomeprazole, lansoprazole, omeprazole, and sodium bicarbonate.

Always follow the Drug Facts label on OTC medicines for proper use, directions, warnings, and other information. And talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about more chronic or severe cases of heartburn; they can diagnose other conditions, causes, and help you manage more serious conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Whatever you do, don’t ignore heartburn symptoms. In addition to causing significant pain and discomfort, if left untreated, the stomach acid that causes heartburn can damage the esophagus and teeth. For more information about treating your heartburn symptoms, check out the Digestive Health section of KnowYourOTCs.org.

Heartburn symptoms don’t have to ruin your Valentine’s Day celebrations; just remember to take it easy with the chocolate and seek out advice from your healthcare provider or pharmacist if you have questions about OTC treatment options. Whether your heartburn stems from added stress or some extra sweets, a little preparation (and some self-control) can go a long way toward helping you find relief.

[1] Mintel, Digestive Health – US – August 2019

Dr. Oswald

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Dr. Leiana Oswald

C. Leiana Oswald, PharmD, is a board-certified geriatric pharmacist and assistant dean of academic affairs at Roseman University of Health Sciences. She has nearly 15 years of experience in treating patients at the community pharmacy level. She is an active member of various national pharmacy organizations including the American Pharmacists’ Association and the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists.