Navigation

Indigestion


Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due February 2022

Indigestion (dyspepsia) refers to several different symptoms, especially pain or discomfort in the top part of your tummy (abdomen). You may have other symptoms too, such as feeling sick, an acidic taste in your mouth and a burning pain in your chest (heartburn). Indigestion usually comes and goes.


Image showing the digestive system

What is indigestion?

Indigestion affects around four in every 10 people in the UK every year. It’s a vague term that refers to different symptoms in different people. You may notice pain in your upper tummy with bloating and sickness. Or you may notice a burning pain at the top of your chest, behind your ribs. You’re most likely to notice indigestion symptoms after you’ve eaten, but you can get them at any time. You may get indigestion regularly or once in a while.

Indigestion has many different causes and doctors don’t always find out what’s causing the symptoms. Your symptoms may be triggered by acid irritating your sensitive stomach lining. If you have heartburn (acid reflux), stomach acid rises up and reaches your throat through your oesophagus. This may be caused by gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) – see our FAQ on What can I do if my indigestion is caused by GORD? Indigestion can also be a symptom of irritation or inflammation of your stomach lining, such as an ulcer. Find out more in our Causes section below.

Symptoms of indigestion

The term indigestion refers to lots of different symptoms. If you have indigestion, you may have all of these symptoms or just a few.

  • Pain, fullness, heaviness, aching or discomfort in your upper tummy or lower chest.
  • Wind or bloating.
  • A burning feeling in your chest (heartburn).
  • Feeling, or occasionally being, sick.
  • Flatulence.
  • Feeling full-up quickly when you eat.

Most people with indigestion don’t see their GP if their symptoms are mild. You may be able to manage your indigestion yourself by making changes to your lifestyle and taking over-the-counter medicines from a pharmacy. But if your symptoms are persistent, come on after you exercise, or are worse or different to your usual indigestion, contact your GP.

Indigestion can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious condition. See your GP if you:

  • are losing weight but don’t know why
  • have persistent symptoms of indigestion for the first time and you’re 55 or older
  • are finding it difficult to swallow
  • are being sick regularly
  • have had your symptoms for more than a few weeks
  • find over-the-counter indigestion medicines aren’t easing your symptoms

If you notice blood in your vomit or stools, or have black, tar-like stools or what looks like coffee grounds in your vomit, seek immediate medical attention.

Occasionally a heart attack can cause indigestion-like symptoms. Call for emergency help if you have any of the following symptoms as well as indigestion:

  • tightness or heaviness in your chest
  • chest pain, which may be spreading to your arms, shoulder, neck or jaw
  • palpitations (when you can feel your heart beating fast or irregularly)
  • sweating
  • difficulty breathing

Click to open a PDF version of Bupa's How to spot a heart attack infographic (PDF, 0.7MB)

Infographic showing how to spot a heart attack

Diagnosis of indigestion

You don’t usually need to see a doctor about occasional indigestion. But if your symptoms are very bad or aren’t getting better, you should speak to your GP.

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and whether anything makes them better or worse (such as alcohol, exercise or certain foods). You may find it helps if you keep a diary before you see your GP. You can use our food and symptoms diary below. Your GP may also feel your tummy and ask about your medical history.

If your GP thinks you have indigestion, you may not need to have any tests. They may suggest you try over-the-counter medicines, such as antacids, and lifestyle changes. If your symptoms still don’t go away, they may suggest a one-month course of proton pump inhibitors to see if these help. See Self-help for indigestion and Medicines for indigestion.

Sometimes your GP may recommend some blood tests to check your iron levels. If your iron levels are low, this could mean you’re losing blood, which is causing iron-deficiency anaemia.

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) testing

H. pylori infection is a bacterial infection that can cause ulcers in your stomach or duodenum. The infection doesn’t always cause symptoms, but can trigger indigestion. Your GP may suggest you’re tested for H. pylori bacteria. You’ll usually have this test after you’ve tried proton pump inhibitors for a month, but sometimes your GP may recommend you have the test first. This may be because of your family history or because you live in an area where lots of people have H. pylori infection. For more information on H. pylori, see Causes of indigestion.

You may have a breath test to check for H. pylori, or your GP may recommend a faecal (stool) sample test instead. If you’re tested for H. pylori, you’ll need to stop taking proton pump inhibitors for two weeks and antibiotics for four weeks beforehand. This is because these medicines can affect the test results.

If the test shows you have H. pylori infection, you’ll be offered antibiotics – see Medicines for indigestion below.

Endoscopy

An endoscopy uses a long flexible tube with a camera at the end to see inside your oesophagus and stomach. Not everyone with indigestion or heartburn needs an endoscopy. But if you’re finding it hard to swallow, or if you’re over 55 and are losing weight for no reason, your GP may refer you for an urgent endoscopy. You may also be referred for an endoscopy if you’re over 55 and have indigestion for the first time or for four to six weeks.

If your symptoms don’t go away, and tests haven’t found a cause, your GP may refer you to a gastroenterologist (who specialises in digestive problems).

Food and symptoms diary

Your indigestion may be triggered by certain foods and drinks, such as chocolate, alcohol, coffee or spices. It may also be triggered by smoking, eating in a rush, stress and other lifestyle habits. Keeping a diary of what you eat and do every day may help to identify anything that could be causing your indigestion or making it worse.

Click to open a PDF version of Bupa's food and symptoms diary (PDF, 1.4MB). Fill it out and take it with you to your GP appointment.

A food and symptoms diary from Bupa UK

 How healthy are you?

Find out how healthy you are with a health assessment, and receive a personalised lifestyle action plan and coaching for a healthier, happier you. Find out more about health assessments >

Treatment of indigestion

You can usually treat mild indigestion yourself. Your local pharmacist should be able to give you lifestyle advice, recommend suitable over-the-counter products and suggest when to see your GP. See Self-help for indigestion and Over-the-counter medicines for indigestion.

If your symptoms aren’t getting any better, your GP may be able to prescribe stronger medicines, longer courses of medicines or different medicines, depending on whether they can find a specific cause. See Prescription medicines for indigestion.

Self-help for indigestion

If you have indigestion, there are a few things you can do to ease your symptoms.

  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Cut down on foods or drinks that may be triggering your symptoms. It may help to keep a food diary to track what you eat and when your symptoms flare up and down. Common triggers include chocolate, coffee and fatty foods.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Drink less alcohol.
  • Sleep in a more upright position by raising the head of your bed with blocks of wood or bricks.
  • Don’t eat during the three-to-four hours before you go to bed.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Eat smaller meals.
  • Eat at regular intervals during the day.
  • Try to reduce your stress and anxiety levels.

Always tell your pharmacist if you’re taking any medicines, as some medicines can cause indigestion or make it worse. Some of these medicines are available over the counter from pharmacies, while others may have been prescribed by your GP. These medicines include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, bisphosphonates for osteoporosis and some antidepressants. You may need to stop taking these medicines, or change how you take them, so speak to your pharmacist or GP.

Over-the-counter medicines for indigestion

You can buy several indigestion medicines from your pharmacist without a prescription. Speak to your pharmacist about the best over-the-counter medicines for your symptoms and whether they’re suitable for you. Tell your pharmacist if you have any medical conditions or take any other medicines. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and ask your pharmacist for advice if you’re unsure about anything.

You can take antacids for occasional symptoms. These ease indigestion by neutralising acid in your stomach so it’s less likely to cause irritation. Antacids usually contain magnesium or aluminium. You can take antacids when you have symptoms or if you’re expecting them to flare up (such as before you go to bed). Liquid products tend to work better than tablets.

Some indigestion medicines contain antacids with alginates or simeticone. Alginates form a raft over your stomach contents. They may help to ease your symptoms if acid rises from your stomach into your oesophagus, causing heartburn. Simeticone is an antifoaming agent. It breaks down bubbles of gas in your digestive system to ease wind and bloating.

If antacids don’t work, or you need to take them regularly to ease your symptoms, your pharmacist may recommend a proton pump inhibitor. Proton pump inhibitors, such as omeprazole, work by stopping your stomach making acid. You can take an over-the-counter proton pump inhibitor for up to four weeks.

If you can’t take a proton pump inhibitor, you may be able to try H2 receptor antagonists, such as cimetidine and ranitidine instead. These also work by reducing how much stomach acid you make.

Prescription medicines for indigestion

If a proton pump inhibitor controls your symptoms well, your GP may prescribe a longer course. They’ll usually suggest you take a lower dose once your symptoms are under control. If you can’t take a proton pump inhibitor, you may be prescribed an H2 receptor antagonist instead. Ask your GP or pharmacist for more information.

If H. pylori bacterial infection is causing your indigestion (see Diagnosis of indigestion), your GP may recommend a mixture of medicines. You may need to take antibiotics to kill off the bacteria and proton pump inhibitors to reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes.

Always ask your GP or pharmacist for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

Causes of indigestion

Your GP may not know what’s causing your indigestion. But certain things may trigger your symptoms. These include:

  • being overweight
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • eating certain foods, such as fatty foods
  • having too much caffeine
  • smoking
  • stress and anxiety
  • medicines, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs)

Underlying health conditions

Indigestion can be caused by a number of health conditions.

You may have a peptic ulcer, which is a break in the lining of your stomach or duodenum (part of your small bowel). You can get a peptic ulcer if stomach acid, which helps to digest your food, damages your stomach lining. A peptic ulcer can be caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria that sometimes live in your stomach. These bacteria can damage your stomach lining by increasing the amount of acid made in your stomach. See Diagnosis of indigestion for more information.

Your indigestion may be caused by a condition called gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). This is when acid leaks out of your stomach and up into your oesophagus. See our FAQ on GORD for more information.

Stomach (gastric) cancer can also cause indigestion.

Sometimes indigestion-like symptoms aren’t related to your digestive system. They may be caused by something else, such as a heart attack.

Pregnancy and indigestion

You may get indigestion and heartburn during pregnancy. This is usually due to your changing hormone levels and the increased pressure in your tummy.

Your symptoms can start at any stage of your pregnancy. They’ll usually get better with lifestyle changes and antacids and alginate medicines from a pharmacy. If you have indigestion or heartburn symptoms in pregnancy, speak to your midwife, pharmacist or GP. See our FAQ on Pregnancy for more information.

Frequently asked questions

  • Wind and bloating are very common. You usually pass wind out through your rectum (flatulence) or your mouth (belching or burping) several times a day. You don’t notice this happening as it’s in tiny amounts each time. But when gas doesn’t pass out of your body easily, or there’s too much gas, this can cause bloating and discomfort.

    Swallowing too much air is a common cause of belching or burping. To prevent this, avoid:

    • eating or drinking too quickly
    • chewing gum
    • drinking fizzy drinks
    • smoking

    You make gas in your bowel when the food you’ve eaten is broken down by gut bacteria. Certain foods, such as pulses, bran and fruit, can increase the amount of gas you make, so try to limit these.

    Regular exercise may help to reduce wind and bloating. Some research shows that probiotics may also help.

    If your symptoms don’t get better after you’ve made changes to your diet, or they get worse, speak to your GP. Most people with wind and bloating don’t have an underlying health problem. But flatulence can sometimes be caused by a condition such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance.

    If you’re lactose intolerant, your stomach and small bowel can’t break down a sugar called lactose, which is found in milk and other dairy products. Instead, when lactose is broken down in your large bowel, this makes lots of gas. Your GP may recommend having a dairy-free diet for a while, to see if this is causing your symptoms. If you have lactose intolerance, your GP may recommend eating and drinking less milk and other dairy products.

  • If you have gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), your stomach acid rises into your oesophagus (the tube linking your stomach to your throat). This may be because the valve (ring of muscle) between your oesophagus and stomach is weak or relaxes too often. You may notice an acidic taste in your mouth or burning sensation in your upper chest (heartburn). This is called acid reflux.

    If you’ve been diagnosed with GORD, you can buy several medicines over the counter from your pharmacist to help ease your symptoms. If your symptoms are mild, you can try antacids, which neutralise your stomach acid. These medicines may also contain an alginate, which forms a barrier over your stomach contents to prevent reflux. If these don’t help, you may be able to try a proton pump inhibitor, which stops your stomach making acid. You can use over-the-counter proton pump inhibitors for four weeks – you’ll need to see your GP if you want to take these for longer than this. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

    Some foods, such as fatty foods, may make your symptoms worse. Keep a diary of what you eat and when you get heartburn – this will help you see if a particular food could be triggering your symptoms. It may also help if you drink less alcohol, stop smoking and lose any excess weight. Try eating smaller meals and having your evening meal three hours before you go to bed too.

  • Between three and eight in every 10 women in the UK are thought to get indigestion at some point during their pregnancy. This is usually caused by rising hormone levels. These hormones make the valve (band of muscle) between your oesophagus and stomach more relaxed. This means some of your stomach contents can come back up into your oesophagus (called reflux). You may also have indigestion because your growing baby in your uterus (womb) presses against your stomach.

    You may notice pain or discomfort in your upper tummy or chest, with belching, nausea and a burning feeling (heartburn). Your symptoms may start at any time during your pregnancy, but these should disappear again once your baby is born. You’re more likely to get indigestion if you had it before you were pregnant or during a previous pregnancy.

    If you have indigestion during pregnancy, speak to your midwife. They may recommend you try antacids and alginates, as you can usually take these safely during pregnancy.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. That’s why our content is produced to the highest quality standards. Look out for the quality marks on our pages below. You can find out more about these organisations and their standards on The Information Standard and HON Code websites.

Information standard logo  This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Dyspepsia – unidentifiable cause. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised September 2017
    • Dyspepsia. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.co, last full review/revision May 2018
    • History and examination. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (online). 10th ed. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online September 2017
    • Therapy-related issues: gastrointestinal system. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Pharmacy (online). 3rd ed. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online April 2017
    • Dyspepsia and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease in adults. NICE Quality Standard 96. www.nice.org.uk, published July 2015
    • Dyspepsia. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked October 2014
    • Overview of GI bleeding. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision January 2018
    • Gastrointestinal medicine. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (online). 4th ed. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online April 2014
    • Acute myocardial infarction. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked May 2016
    • Test and treat for Helicobacter pylori (HP) in dyspepsia. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk, published July 2017
    • Helicobacter pylori. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked 14 November 2014
    • Dyspepsia. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated October 2018
    • Antacids. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated October 2018
    • H2 receptor antagonists. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated October 2018
    • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and dyspepsia in adults: investigation and management. NICE Clinical Guideline CG184. www.nice.org.uk, last updated November 2014
    • Peptic ulceration. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated October 2018
    • Dyspepsia – proven peptic ulcer. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised September 2017
    • Gastric cancer. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked November 2014
    • Dyspepsia – pregnancy associated. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk last revised April 2017
    • Flatulence and wind. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked August 2014
    • Lactose intolerance. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked December 2016
    • Gastroesophageal reflux disease. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated October 2017
    • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked March 2016
    • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated October 2018
  • Reviewed by Laura Blanks, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, February 2019
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due February 2022



Has our health information helped you?

We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short survey will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

ajax-loader