Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic-heartburn-symptoms; March of Dimes: http://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/heartburn-and-indigestion.aspx; University of California San Francisco Medical Center: http://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/heartburn/; Jupiter Images; Flickr RF; PhotoDune; Nebari; AudioJungle
Heartburn is an irritation of the esophagus -- the tube that connects your throat and stomach. It's caused by stomach acid. This leads to a burning discomfort in your upper belly or below your breastbone.
What Causes Heartburn?
Heartburn symptoms can start up because of a problem with a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). It's located where the esophagus meets the stomach -- below the rib cage and slightly left of center.
Normally, with the help of gravity, the LES keeps stomach acid right where it should be -- in your stomach. When it's working right, the LES opens to allow food into your stomach or to let you belch, then closes again. But if the LES opens too often or doesn't close tightly enough, stomach acid can seep into the esophagus and cause a burning sensation.
If your LES doesn't tighten as it should, there are often two things that contribute to the problem. One is overeating, which puts too much food in your stomach. Another is too much pressure on your stomach, often due to obesity, pregnancy, or constipation.
Certain foods can relax your LES or increase stomach acid, including:
- Citrus fruits
- Garlic and onions
- Coffee or caffeinated products
How Long Does Heartburn Last?
It can vary. For some folks, it can be just a few minutes. Sometimes it can last for several hours.
Heartburn happens about once a week for up to 20% of Americans and is common in pregnant women.
Occasional heartburn isn't dangerous. But long-term heartburn, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can sometimes lead to serious problems, such as:
- Long-term cough
- Inflammation or ulcers of the esophagus
- Problems swallowing because of a narrow esophagus
- Barrett's esophagus, a condition that can make it more likely to get esophageal cancer