Heartburn Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on February 28, 2024
6 min read

If you've got a burning feeling in your chest just behind your breastbone that starts after you eat, it might be heartburn. The symptoms could last a few minutes to even several hours.

Heartburn begins when stomach acid splashes up into your esophagus, a tube that connects the back of your throat and stomach. Besides the burning feeling in your chest, you may also get:

  • Chest pain, especially after you bend over, lie down, or eat
  • Burning at the back of your throat
  • Fluid at the back of your throat that tastes hot, sour, acidic, or salty
  • Long-term cough, sore throat, or hoarseness

Telling your doctor about these symptoms is usually all they need to make a diagnosis of heartburn. But they may ask you to take special tests to find out how severe the problem is or to keep an eye on your treatment.

Acid reflux happens when acid from the stomach backs up into the food tube called the esophagus. Heartburn is the burning sensation people often feel when this happens. Essentially, acid reflux is a common cause of heartburn, making heartburn a symptom of acid reflux.

GERD (or gastroesophageal reflux disease) is chronic acid reflux that happens two or more times weekly for more than several weeks.

Chest pain is one of the most common reasons to go to the emergency room. While many of these people may have angina or a heart attack, some folks may have severe heartburn.

Often, the pain from angina, a heart attack, and a severe heartburn episode are so hard to tell apart that doctors need sophisticated tests to figure out what's going on.

To complicate things even more, angina/heart disease and heartburn share risk factors such as being older or overweight.

Signs more typical of heartburn include:

  • You have a sharp, burning feeling just below your breastbone or ribs. The chest pain can be accompanied by an acidic taste in your mouth, regurgitating (or spitting up food), or a burning in your throat.
  • Pain that generally doesn't spread to your shoulders, neck, or arms, but it can.
  • Pain that usually comes after meals, particularly after foods or drinks that trigger reflux in you.
  • Pain that also comes when you lie down or exercise on a full stomach.
  • Symptoms that usually get better quickly after taking an antacid.
  • Sometimes, you may get a cold sweat or shortness of breath along with your other symptoms.

Indigestion is what many people call an upset stomach or stomachache. It is also called dyspepsia and happens when you eat too much or you eat something that doesn’t agree with you, such as spicy, fatty, or greasy food. Indigestion can also be caused by a problem with your digestive system. Both indigestion and heartburn usually happen after eating. These symptoms may occur together but are different (often related) problems.

Heartburn comes from acid washing back up your food pipe, causing a burning sensation in your chest or throat. Indigestion is caused by other issues such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, or problems with digestion, such as gastritis (swelling of the stomach lining), peptic ulcers, or celiac disease. Symptoms of indigestion are felt in the upper and lower belly.

Indigestion symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Burning feeling in the upper abdomen
  • Feeling too full
  • Stomach pain or discomfort
  • Belching
  • Gas
  • Food or liquid coming back up the throat (called regurgitating)

Heartburn is common in pregnancy, especially during the second and third trimesters. This happens due to the growing baby pressing against your stomach. This leaves less room for food and may push stomach acid up into your food pipe.

Normal hormonal changes during pregnancy can also make heartburn worse. Heartburn symptoms in pregnancy, such as a burning sensation, burping, bloating, and a sour or bitter taste, are the same as when you’re not pregnant. But you may experience more severe symptoms and get heartburn more often.

Heartburn and gas often go together. This is because excess gas is caused by some of the same digestion problems that may lead to heartburn. These issues include eating too much or too quickly and eating spicy, fatty, fried, or gas-inducing foods.

Certain conditions may also cause heartburn and gas. These include constipation, food intolerances or sensitivities, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), being overweight or obese, and mental health issues such as stress and anxiety.

Nausea often accompanies heartburn. Many of the same foods and digestion issues that cause heartburn can also make you feel nauseous or sick to your stomach, especially if you eat too much or too quickly. Acid reflux, GERD, dyspepsia, a sedentary lifestyle, and food sensitivities such as lactose or fructose intolerance can all cause heartburn symptoms and nausea.

People with heartburn may also have back pain. Both are symptoms of acid reflux and GERD. Issues that cause back pain, such as poor posture, scoliosis, a sedentary lifestyle, pregnancy, and weakness of the stomach and back muscles, can also lead to acid reflux. The pain of heartburn also may feel like it’s coming from your upper chest down to your lower back.

If you have pain in your chest that's not going away and you're not sure whether it's heartburn or a heart attack, call 911.

But don't forget, the symptoms of heart attack and heartburn can sometimes go away after a while. So, always call your doctor if you have pain in your chest and you're not sure why -- even if it stopped.

Also, call 911 if you have symptoms that are more typical of a heart attack or angina (severe chest pain from heart problems), such as:

  • A feeling of fullness, tightness, or dull pressure or pain generally in the center of your chest
  • Feeling like a belt is being tightened around your chest
  • Pain that comes on with exercise and is relieved by rest
  • Sudden chest pain or pressure that gets worse
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Pain that spreads to your shoulders, neck, jaw, or arms
  • Pain that gets better quickly after taking nitroglycerin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat

If you have any pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or any warning signs of a heart attack, get medical help right away. Also, get emergency help if you're confused at all about whether your symptoms are from a heartburn or a heart attack.

Heartburn symptoms can be very uncomfortable. They may come and go or happen after every meal. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and lifestyle changes, such as eating smaller portions, losing weight, exercising, quitting smoking, and not lying down right after meals, often provide relief. If not, talk to your doctor about other treatment options.

How do you make heartburn go away?

There are many things you can do to relieve heartburn. Start by avoiding triggering foods, alcohol, coffee, and carbonated drinks. Also, chew slower, eat smaller portions, and take small sips of water while eating. Chewing gum, taking an antacid, sitting up after eating, sleeping with your head and chest propped up on pillows, and taking it easy after a meal may help. If your symptoms continue, ask your doctor about other remedies.

What can cause severe heartburn?

Causes of severe heartburn or GERD include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Eating acidic, spicy, fatty, or greasy foods
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medications
  • Having a hernia in your stomach
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Connective tissue diseases

What can I take for heartburn?

There are a variety of OTC and prescription medications that can ease heartburn symptoms. These include:

  • Antacids such as Mylanta, Rolaids, or Tums
  • Alginates such as Gaviscon
  • Histamine-2 (H2) blockers such as Axid, Pepcid, or Tagamet
  • Proton pump inhibitors such as Nexium, Prilosec, or Prevacid

Some medications have both OTC and prescription-strength options available. Talk to your doctor to find out which medications may work best for you. If these don’t help, your doctor might prescribe another type of medicine, such as an antibiotic or steroid.