Indigestion (Dyspepsia)

Last Updated July 2021 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

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 group of organs that plays 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
  • Burping
  • Bloating
  • Gurgling stomach and/or gas
  • Acid reflux
  • Heartburn
  • 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 include:

  • Eating certain foods, such as those that are spicy and fatty, and those with lots of acid or fiber
  • Eating too late in the day
  • Drinking alcohol or too much caffeine
  • Taking certain medicines
  • Smoking
  • Not sleeping

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): This is when your food and drink comes back up from your stomach after eating or drinking. It’s in the form of acid and can come into your esophagus, the tube-like organ connecting your mouth and stomach. Acid reflux also can produce vomiting. This condition also may cause heartburn.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: This disorder affects your intestines. Symptoms include stomach pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
  • Infection: A bacterial infection from Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) can cause indigestion.
  • GastroparesisThis condition 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: This is a sore on the lining of your stomach (peptic ulcer), small intestine, or esophagus.
  • Gastritis: This is inflammation of your stomach lining.
  • Stomach cancer: This is a rare condition, but indigestion can be one of its signs.

How is indigestion diagnosed?

Your doctor will review your symptoms and perform a physical exam. They 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 your doctor may 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. This will be done after you’re given medicines to go to sleep.

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.

Indigestion treatment

Your treatment will depend on what is causing your indigestion. Your doctor can help you decide which treatment is best for you.

Some over-the-counter medicines may help your symptoms. Check with your doctor before starting something new.

  • Antacids (two brand names: Tums and Alka-Seltzer) work against the acid in your system.
  • Proton pump inhibitors omeprazole (one brand name: Prilosec) and lansoprazole (one brand name: Prevacid) help block the site of acid production in your stomach.
  • Histamine blockers (one brand name: Pepcid) help reduce pain and symptoms, but should not be used long-term.

Do not take pain and anti-inflammatory medicines (one brand name: Aleve) for your symptoms. They do not help and can worsen your condition, especially if used often.

If you have a stomach ulcer, you may need to take an acid-blocking medicine. But your ulcer can be cured. If you have an infection in your stomach, you also may need to take an antibiotic.

Prevention methods for indigestion also are forms of treatment. These include changing your diet and the way you eat. Also get more sleep and reduce your level of stress.

Living with indigestion

Most people who have indigestion lead a normal life. You may need to make some lifestyle changes or take medicine to treat your symptoms. Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.

In rare cases, indigestion can be the sign of a serious problem. Examples include a deep stomach ulcer or stomach cancer. If you have any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor right away:

  • You recently lost weight without trying.
  • You have trouble swallowing.
  • You have severe vomiting.
  • You have black, tarry bowel movements.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What’s causing my indigestion?
  • What are some foods I should avoid to help with my indigestion?
  • How much time do I need to leave been my final meal of the day and bedtime?
  • Does sleeping on an elevated pillow help indigestion?
  • What medicines will help my indigestion? Do they have side effects?
  • Are there any medicines I should avoid that may make my indigestion worse?
  • What should I do when nothing seems to help my indigestion?