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It's another busy day for John. After a day of classes and an exhausting soccer practice, he now has half an hour of free time to grab some dinner before play rehearsal. He orders a large pizza with pepperoni and extra cheese and gobbles it down with time to spare.

As he walks into the theater for rehearsal, John starts to feel nauseated and he has a burning feeling in the back of his throat. John can't understand what's going on — he felt fine just a few minutes ago.

What Is Indigestion?

John has indigestion, a common digestive problem. Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia (pronounced: dis-pep-see-ah), is just another name for an upset stomach. Indigestion usually happens when people eat too much or too fast, or certain foods don't agree with them. It might happen more often if you smoke, drink alcohol, are stressed out, or don't get enough sleep.

Sometimes indigestion can be accompanied by heartburn. Despite its name though, heartburn actually has nothing to do with your heart. It's caused by stomach acid splashing up from the stomach and into the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. This is called esophageal reflux, and it usually leaves a sour or bitter taste in the mouth.

Indigestion and heartburn are common problems for people of all ages — hence all those commercials for heartburn and indigestion medicines on TV. Some of the medicines you see advertised are OK for teens, but some of them are meant for adults. So before you start taking any medication for heartburn or indigestion, talk to your doctor.

What Causes Indigestion?

You may be wondering how indigestion occurs in the first place. There are many potential causes — often it's just because a person eats too much or eats too fast, as mentioned before. But sometimes it can be due to smoking, drinking alcohol, or certain stomach problems, like gastritis (stomach inflammation) or an ulcer.

Do I Have It?

If you have indigestion, you'll probably have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • pain or burning in your upper belly
  • nausea
  • bloating
  • uncontrollable burping
  • heartburn

When to Go to the Doctor

Usually, indigestion only happens once in a while, like after eating certain foods that don't agree with you. But you'll want to see the doctor if you get indigestion even when you're eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

You may need to be examined or have stomach X-rays or other tests to make sure your indigestion is not a sign of another problem in your digestive tract. Depending on what the doctor finds, you might need to make changes in your diet or take medicine.

Be sure to tell your parent or talk to a doctor if these things happen in addition to your indigestion:

  • vomiting (throwing up), especially if you see blood in your vomit
  • weight loss
  • no appetite for more than a day
  • shortness of breath
  • frequent or intense stomach pain
  • black or bloody bowel movements

These can be signs of other problems, so be sure to talk to a doctor if you experience one or several of these symptoms.

Indigestion Prevention

Some people can eat anything and never get an upset stomach. But others are more sensitive to certain foods and find that some just don't agree with them. If you discover you have a problem with particular foods, it's best to limit them or skip them entirely.

In addition to avoiding problem foods, try to eat a few smaller meals instead of one or two really big ones. Here are some other tips to prevent indigestion:

  • As much as possible, avoid fatty, greasy foods, like fries and burgers.
  • Avoid too much chocolate or too many citrus fruits (the acid in citrus fruits can upset the digestive tract).
  • Eat slowly.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Find ways to relax and decrease stress.
  • Give your body a chance to digest food. Don't eat a huge meal and immediately go to sports practice. Try to eat at least an hour before physical exertion, or eat afterward.

You might still get indigestion once in a while, even if you follow these tips. But as long as your indigestion doesn't go on for a long time or is not excessively painful, it's probably nothing out of the ordinary.

Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012

 
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Related Resources:
American Academy of Family Physicians
This site, operated by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), provides information on family physicians and health care, a directory of family physicians, and resources on health conditions.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.