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What is indigestion (dyspepsia)?
Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia is a common condition. It can happen when your body has trouble digesting food. It occurs in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract is a sequence of organs that play a part in digestion. Anyone can get indigestion. You can get it on occasion, or it can be an ongoing problem. The symptoms and causes vary by case. If there is no known cause for indigestion, it is referred to as functional dyspepsia.
Symptoms of indigestion
Indigestion can feel like a stomachache. You can have a range of symptoms including:
- pain, discomfort, or a burning feeling in your chest or stomach
- gurgling stomach and/or gas
- acid reflux
- nausea and/or vomiting
Talk to your doctor if symptoms continue for more than two weeks. Seek medical care right away if your symptoms are severe, such as:
- shortness of breath
- trouble swallowing
- ongoing vomiting
- throwing up blood
- sudden pain in chest, arm, neck, or jaw
- cold sweats
- thick, black, or bloody stool
What causes indigestion?
A lot of factors can cause indigestion. These factors can include:
- Eating certain foods that are hard to process, such as foods that are high in spice, fat, acid, and/or fiber.
- Eating too late in the day.
- Drinking alcohol.
- Getting too much caffeine.
- Taking certain medicines.
- A lack of sleep.
Problems in your GI tract or other health issues also can cause indigestion. These include:
- Acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): A reaction to food and drink where contents come back up from your stomach. The acid can come up into your esophagus, the tube-like organ connecting your mouth and stomach. Acid reflux also can produce vomiting. This condition causes heartburn because of the high acid contents.
- Irritable bowel syndrome: A disorder that affects your intestines. Symptoms include stomach pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
- Infection: A bacterial infection from Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) can cause indigestion.
- Gastroparesis: A condition that affects digestion. If muscles in your GI tract stop working, your body slows down or stops the movement of food. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, bloating, and acid reflux.
- Ulcer: A sore on the lining of your stomach (peptic ulcer), small intestine, or esophagus.
- Gastritis: Inflammation of your stomach lining.
- Stomach cancer: This is a rare condition, but indigestion can be one of its signs.
How is indigestion diagnosed?
To start, your doctor will review your symptoms and perform a physical exam. If there are warning signs in your history or during your exam, your doctor may order tests to determine the cause of indigestion. Those tests can include blood work, urine/stool tests, or an X-ray or ultrasound. Sometimes the doctor will perform an upper endoscopy to see inside your stomach. Your doctor will insert a thin tube with a camera on the end into your esophagus.
Can indigestion be prevented or avoided?
There are ways to prevent indigestion. To start, you need to know your body and how it reacts to different food and drinks. Spicy and acidic foods and carbonated drinks can trigger indigestion. Try to avoid those things when possible. Eat smaller meals throughout the day, and don’t eat too late at night. Don’t lie down too soon after eating. Limit the use of alcohol. If you use tobacco, try to quit. Stress and lack of sleep also can worsen symptoms.
Your treatment will depend on what is causing your indigestion. The prevention methods for indigestion also are forms of treatment. These include changing your diet and the way you eat. Getting more sleep and reducing stress also help.
If you have a stomach ulcer, it can be cured. You may need to take an acid-blocking medicine. If you have an infection in your stomach, you may also need to take an antibiotic.
In addition, you can try to avoid or take certain over-the-counter medicines. Check with your doctor before starting something new.
- Pain and anti-inflammatory medicines, like Advil or Aleve, do not help with indigestion. They can worsen your condition, especially if used often.
- Antacids are meant to work against the acid in your system. Brands such as Tums or Alka-Seltzer can help reduce some symptoms of indigestion.
- Histamine blockers include Zantac and Pepcid. These can help reduce pain and symptoms, but should not be used long-term.
- Proton pump inhibitors omeprazole and lansoprazole are now available over the counter. These medicines help block the site of acid production in your stomach.
You may need other treatment, based on the cause of your indigestion.
Living with indigestion
Most people who have indigestion lead a normal life. You might need to make some lifestyle changes to help prevent indigestion. Or you may need medicine to prevent and treat symptoms. Work with your doctor to treat and manage any problems that cause indigestion.
Sometimes indigestion can be the sign of a serious problem—for example, a deep stomach ulcer. Rarely, indigestion is caused by stomach cancer. If you have indigestion, talk to your family doctor. This is especially important if any one of the following is true for you:
- You’re older than 50 years of age.
- You recently lost weight without trying to.
- You have trouble swallowing.
- You have severe vomiting.
- You have black, tarry bowel movements.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Are there certain medicines that will help my indigestion? What are the side effects?
- Are there certain medicines I should avoid?
- What should I do when nothing seems to help my indigestion?
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This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.