Signs and Symptoms of Heartburn

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young woman with sore throat, squeezing eyes shut with painful swallowing

Occasional heartburn is the common way of referring to gastroesophageal reflux, or GER. If you experience heartburn more than twice a week for a few weeks, it’s possible that you have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, although this must be diagnosed by your doctor. It’s estimated that about 20% of adults in the United States have GERD.

Heartburn symptoms are very typical and pronounced for most people who experience them:

  • A burning pain in the chest that may rise up to your throat, most often after eating
  • Worsening pain when you lie flat or bend over
  • Acidic or bitter taste in the back of your mouth
  • A feeling that food is sticking in your throat or chest

Heartburn Symptoms versus Heart Attack Symptoms

Because heartburn causes chest pain, it’s not surprising that some people, especially those at risk for heart problems, may not be able to tell the difference between the two. They may worry that the heartburn pain is a heart attack. They aren’t alone. Emergency rooms across the country see over 8 million patients who have chest pain. Over half turn out to be heartburn. While patients may feel silly, feeling that they’ve wasted everyone’s time, if you can’t tell the difference between pain from a heart attack and heartburn, it’s always best to be safe.

Chest pain from a heart attack usually, but not always, accompanies other symptoms, such as:

  • Numbness in one arm, especially the left
  • Radiating pain to the jaw or through to the back
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • May occur during or shortly after intense physical activity or stress

Common Heartburn Causes

The acid in your stomach is essential for digestion, but when it rises into your esophagus, it causes a burning sensation. Normally, when you swallow, the muscle at the bottom of your esophagus opens to allow the food to travel to your stomach. As soon as the food or drink passes, the sphincter closes so nothing can back up. However, in some people, this muscle or sphincter is weak and doesn’t close completely, allowing stomach acid to back up. For most people, occasional heartburn is uncomfortable but not serious. However, long-term acid reflux can cause damage to the esophageal wall, so if you experience frequent heartburn, it’s best to be checked by your doctor.

Some risk factors for heartburn include:

  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Eating large portions of food
  • Eating spicy, fried, and/or high fat foods
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Drinking citrus juices, sodas, or caffeinated drinks
  • Eating just before going to bed
  • Wearing clothes with tight waistlines
  • Some medications

Heartburn Relief

Although occasional heartburn usually isn’t harmful, it can be quite uncomfortable. There are some things you can try at home. Here are some tips for managing heartburn:

  • Avoid eating within 3 to 4 hours of bed.
  • Elevate the head of your bed about 6 inches with blocks under the legs. Don’t use pillows as this may cause you to bend your neck unnaturally and could make the heartburn worse.
  • Try to sleep on your left side.
  • Avoid tight clothing.
  • Keep a food journal to see if certain food or drinks trigger the heartburn.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Eat smaller meals.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

There are some medications you can take that could help relieve the reflux. However, if you are pregnant, speak with your doctor first before taking anything, even over-the-counter medications. The medications include:

  • Antacids, such as Maalox, Tums and Rolaids
  • H2-receptor antagonists, such as Pepcid and Zantac
  • Proton pump inhibitors, such as Prevacid and Nexium

If none of these tips work, see a doctor, who may have other suggestions.

Seeing Your Doctor

If you experience any signs or symptoms that could be a heart attack, call 911 or get someone to bring you to the emergency room as quickly as possible. If you notice any of the following, make an appointment to speak with your doctor as you may need further tests or treatment:

  • The heartburn occurs more than twice a week.
  • Your at-home adjustments and over-the-counter medications don’t relieve the discomfort.
  • You experience nausea and vomiting on a regular basis.
  • You’re losing weight unintentionally.
  • You are starting to have difficulty swallowing.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Mar 27
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  4. Heartburn Overview. Cleveland Clinic.
  5. Definition & Facts for GER & GERD. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.