Navigation

Indigestion

Expert reviewer, Dr Elizabeth Rogers, Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
Next review due July 2024

Indigestion is a term used to describe a range of symptoms including pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen. It’s also known as dyspepsia. Indigestion is very common. It’s usually something you can manage yourself with lifestyle changes or over-the-counter medicines.


Image showing the digestive system

About indigestion

Around four in every 10 people in the UK get indigestion every year. It can affect people differently, but indigestion symptoms often include pain or a burning feeling just under your ribs or higher up in your chest. You may notice certain things trigger your indigestion symptoms – for example, eating fatty foods or drinking alcohol or coffee. But some people get indigestion symptoms, which aren’t related to eating or drinking, at any time.

Indigestion can be caused by many things including acid irritating your stomach lining and increased sensitivity in your bowel. Certain conditions can be associated with indigestion, but it’s often not possible to say what’s causing it. For more information, see our section: Causes of indigestion.

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 or discomfort in your upper abdomen
  • a burning feeling in your chest (heartburn)
  • wind or bloating
  • feeling or being sick
  • feeling full-up quickly when you eat

You won’t usually need to see your GP if your symptoms are mild. But if your symptoms don’t go away within a few weeks or are getting worse or self-help measures aren’t working, contact your GP.

There are times when you should see your GP straight away if you have indigestion. These include if you:

  • are over 55, and have also lost weight without trying or are being sick regularly
  • are finding it difficult to swallow
  • have blood in your vomit or poo

Occasionally, a heart attack can cause indigestion-like symptoms. Call for emergency help if you have sudden pain in your chest or upper abdomen. In a heart attack, the pain may also spread to your arms, shoulder, neck or jaw. You may have other symptoms too – for example, sweating, shortness of breath and feeling or being sick.

 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 >

Diagnosis of indigestion

You won’t usually need to have indigestion diagnosed by a doctor. But if you do see your GP, they’ll want to ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll ask if anything makes your symptoms 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 to record this information. See our section: Food and symptoms diary.

Your GP may want to examine you by feeling your tummy and sometimes they may ask you to have a blood test. This is to help check for any underlying problems (other conditions you may have), that may be causing your indigestion.

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) testing

If you’re having regular episodes of indigestion, your GP may suggest you have a test for H. pylori bacteria. H. pylori infection is a common cause of ulcers in your stomach or duodenum. You may have a breath test to check for H. pylori or your GP may recommend a faecal (stool) sample test instead.

Endoscopy

Depending on any other symptoms you have and your age, your GP may refer you for a test called an endoscopy (or a gastroscopy). This involves a long flexible tube with a camera at the end so your doctor can see inside your oesophagus (food pipe) and stomach. Your GP may refer you for this test if you’re finding it hard to swallow or if you’re over 55 and are losing weight for no reason. Your GP may also suggest an endoscopy if your symptoms aren’t getting better with treatment.

Food and symptoms diary

Your indigestion may be triggered by certain foods and drinks such as chocolate, alcohol, coffee and spicy or fatty foods. It may also be triggered by smoking, eating close to bedtime, stress and other lifestyle habits. Keeping a diary of what you eat and do every day may help to identify anything that could be triggering 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

Treatment of indigestion

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

Lifestyle changes

There are several changes you can make that may help to stop indigestion or give you some relief.

  • If you’re overweight, aim to lose the excess weight.
  • Cut down on foods or drinks that may be triggering your symptoms – a food diary may help you keep track.
  • If you smoke, stop.
  • If you drink alcohol, make sure you’re drinking within recommended limits.
  • Try to eat smaller meals at regular intervals during the day (rather than having one or two large meals).
  • 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.
  • Take measures to try and reduce any stress and anxiety.

Always tell your pharmacist or GP if you’re taking any medicines because some medicines can cause indigestion or make it worse. Your pharmacist or GP will tell you if you should stop taking these medicines or change how you take them.

Indigestion medicines

You can buy several indigestion medicines over the counter without a prescription. Speak to your pharmacist about what’s most suitable for you. Your pharmacist will tell you if you need to see your GP. Your GP may be able to prescribe different medicines or longer courses.

Antacids

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 buy them from a pharmacy or shop, without a prescription from your doctor. You take them when you have symptoms or if you’re expecting them to flare up (for example, before you go to bed). Liquid products tend to work better than tablets.

Proton pump inhibitors

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 are a type of medicine that works by stopping your stomach making acid. You can take an over-the-counter proton pump inhibitor without a prescription from your doctor for up to four weeks.

If you feel that you need to keep taking a proton pump inhibitor to control your symptoms, you should see your GP. They can assess you further and may prescribe a longer course. They’ll usually suggest you take a lower dose once your symptoms are under control.

Other medicines for indigestion

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

If H. pylori bacterial infection is causing your indigestion, your GP may recommend a combination 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 if you have any questions about your medicine, and read the patient information leaflet that comes with it.

Causes of indigestion

More often than not, no underlying cause will be found for your indigestion. Your symptoms could be due to many things including increased sensitivity in your bowel or acid irritating your stomach lining. You may also develop indigestion after having an infection.

Sometimes, doctors will be able to identify an underlying cause for your indigestion. These may include the following.

  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). This is when acid leaks out of your stomach and up into your oesophagus. Certain factors may make you more likely to develop GORD. These include being obese, being pregnant and having a hiatus hernia. Smoking, alcohol and certain foods can trigger it too.
  • Peptic ulcer. This is a break in the lining of your stomach or duodenum (part of your small bowel). Peptic ulcers are often associated with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection. Certain medicines, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin can increase risk of peptic ulcers. Smoking, alcohol and stress can also be factors.
  • Stomach (gastric) cancer. This is a rare cause of indigestion, but it’s something your doctor may need to investigate.

Pregnancy and indigestion

You’re more likely to get indigestion and heartburn during pregnancy. Your hormones can make the 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.

Your symptoms can start at any stage of your pregnancy. They’ll usually get better with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicines, and go away once you’ve had your baby. If you have indigestion or heartburn symptoms in pregnancy, speak to your midwife, pharmacist or GP.

Frequently asked questions



Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Dyspepsia – unidentified cause. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised October 2018
    • Conditions for which over the counter items should not routinely be prescribed in primary care: Guidance for CCGs. NHS England, 29 March 2018. www.england.nhs.uk
    • Gastrointestinal medicine. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Assessment of dyspepsia. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 17 May 2021
    • Dyspepsia – proven functional. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised October 2018
    • Dyspepsia and gastro‑oesophageal reflux disease in adults. Quality standard. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), July 2015. nice.org.uk
    • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), last updated 11 September 2020. nice.org.uk
    • Acute myocardial infarction. Patient. patient.info, last edited 15 December 2020
    • Acute myocardial infarction (MI). MSD Manuals. msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision July 2020
    • Dyspepsia. Patient. patient.info, last edited 19 March 2020
    • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and dyspepsia in adults: investigation and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), October 2019. nice.org.uk
    • Dyspepsia – proven GORD. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised April 2017
    • Antacids. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 2 June 2021
    • Omeprazole. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 2 June 2021
    • H2-receptor antagonists. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 2 June 2021
    • Dyspepsia – proven peptic ulcer. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised October 2019
    • Dyspepsia – pregnancy-associated. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised April 2017
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, July 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Elizabeth Rogers, Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
    Next review due July 2024

ajax-loader