Why Do I Have a Burning Sensation in My Chest?

A burning sensation in your chest can be scary, but this is a common symptom that can develop for a number of reasons. They range from anxiety and inflammation in the body, to certain medical conditions involving the heart, lungs, and intestines. 

Most of the time, symptoms of burning in the chest will not be due to a heart-related condition. In fact, the most common cause of a burning sensation in your chest is heartburn, or acid reflux. It is usually not life-threatening, but it can be irritating and signal the presence of larger health issues that should not be dismissed.

This article will look at common causes of burning in the chest, potentially life-threatening causes, and when to seek immediate medical attention.

Shot of a young businesswoman holding her chest in pain while working in an office.

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Signs of an Emergency

The feeling of an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest is common. It is usually not a sign of a medical emergency, but if you experience the following additional symptoms you may want to seek medical attention:

  • Squeezing or pressure sensation, especially pain that gets worse or radiates to the left side of the body
  • Pain that travels to your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sweating (especially profuse sweating in a cool area)
  • Racing heartbeat

If you experience any of these symptoms, or if your symptoms are persistent and a cause of concern, seek immediate medical attention.

Common Causes of Burning Sensation in the Chest

The most common causes of a burning sensation in your chest are usually unrelated to your heart. While the occasional burning sensation in your chest is not usually life-threatening, it can serve as a warning sign so it’s worth addressing.

Heartburn

Researchers estimate that in about 50% to 60% of cases, non-cardiac chest pain is caused by heartburn. This is also known as acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux (GER).

This condition occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Acid can make its way into your throat when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) fails to close properly.

Irritation of the tissues in the esophagus results in an uncomfortable burning sensation in the chest, usually behind the breast bone.

Caffeine, along with food that is spicy or high in fat, can cause heartburn. Other causes include smoking, obesity, and pregnancy. 

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder that occurs when triggers like spicy foods, high caffeine intake, obesity, and smoking cause repeated bouts of gastrointestinal reflux. When gastric juice backs up into the esophagus, it causes damage to the lining of the esophagus, which can result in a burning sensation in the chest. 

Other common symptoms of GERD include:

  • Coughing
  • Bad breath
  • Heartburn
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting
  • The feeling of food caught in your throat
  • Non-burning chest pain

Esophagitis

Esophagitis occurs when injury or irritation causes inflammation of the cells that line your food pipe. Additional symptoms of difficulty and pain while swallowing may accompany your chest pain. Gastroesophageal reflux is the most common culprit of erosive esophagitis. Other causes include:

Stomach Ulcers

Peptic ulcers are sores that develop in the lining of the stomach or the duodenum, the first portion of the small intestines. They can cause gnawing abdominal pain and a burning sensation in the chest. Peptic ulcers often produce symptoms that are hard to distinguish from angina, trauma, or a heart attack.

Anxiety 

Anxiety attacks, or panic attacks, are episodes of intense fear and emotional distress that can strike suddenly and without warning. They can last several minutes or up to an hour, and can be triggered by a wide range of factors. Stress is the most common cause but others include:

  • Substance use
  • Caffeine
  • Pre-existing health conditions
  • Social events
  • Reminders of traumatic events 

This heightened anxiety can lead to chest pain. This is because stress triggers the body to produce fight or flight hormones (cortisol), which can lead to physiological changes such as a racing heartbeat and muscle tightness in the chest.

Other symptoms that may accompany a panic attack include: 

  • A rising sense of dread or danger
  • A sense of detachment
  • A sense of losing control
  • Fear of death
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Numbness and tingling in your hands or feet

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that occurs when your lung vessels narrow, making it harder for air to move into and out of the lungs. Chest discomfort may be a presenting symptom of asthma. It is usually described as a feeling of pressure, tightness, pain, or a burning sensation in the chest.

The most common symptoms of asthma are:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
  • Shortness of breath

Life-Threatening Causes of Chest Pain

Heart Attack 

Chest pain that is burning, travels down one or both arms, and does not change with breathing, movement, or food intake raises the concern of heart attack. This is more likely to be the possible explanation of your symptoms if you have risk factors.

These risk factors may include:

  • Older age
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • A family history of heart disease

Trauma

Any traumatic injury to the chest that impacts the chest wall muscle, diaphragm, and ribs can cause damage to the lungs, heart, and other vital organs. This can result in a burning sensation in the chest.

Infection

Infectious diseases, such as the reactivation of the shingles virus (herpes zoster) can also injure muscles in the chest. This can potentially cause a burning sensation in the chest.

Pulmonary Embolism

The main symptoms of a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the main artery leading to a lung) include chest pain that is sharp, stabbing, or burning. The pain caused by a pulmonary embolism is often localized under the breastbone or on one side of the body and worsens on deep breathing.

Treatment For Burning Chest Pain

The best treatment for you is based on the cause of the burning sensation in your chest. If the cause of your symptoms is heartburn, for example, taking antacids and acid blockers can reduce stomach acid production and help to resolve your symptoms.

If your cause is asthma, using an inhaler and limiting your exposure to environmental triggers might work best. In stressful situations, you may use a deep breathing technique or leave a stressful situation if you sense heightened anxiety. No matter the case, treating the underlying cause is usually the most effective means of resolving your chest burn.

Treatment of your chest burn symptoms depends on the underlying cause. Proper diagnosis is essential to developing an effective treatment plan.

The following questions may be asked by a healthcare provider during your assessment: 

  • When did your chest burning start and how long have you felt this sensation?
  • Has your chest burning sensation changed over time?
  • Can you tell me about any specific triggers that bring about your chest burn?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Does anything relieve or worsen the burning sensation?
  • What medications are you taking?

Prevention

Major steps you can take to decrease the likelihood of developing chest burn include preventing GERD, limiting stress, and never smoking. A heart-healthy diet that's low in sodium, cholesterol, and sugar is one such lifestyle change you can make.

GERD is the most common cause of a burning sensation in your chest so it’s important to know what steps to take to avoid it. GERD is highly preventable without the need for medication if you are willing to make a few lifestyle changes. The following steps can prevent GERD:

  • Lose weight. Extra abdominal fat places pressure on your abdomen, pushing gastric juices up into your esophagus.
  • Avoid trigger foods. Spicy foods, onions, chocolate, caffeine, and junk food have all been shown to increase the prevalence of GERD.
  • Don’t lie down after eating. Gravity is a major contributor to food digestion. When you lie down, it's more likely that stomach acid will flow back through the LES and into the esophagus. 
  • Eat food slowly and chew thoroughly. More food in the stomach can mean more acid buildup. Eating smaller meals and small portions can decrease acid reflux.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing. 
  • Quit smoking. Nicotine relaxes the esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to enter.
  • Limit alcohol. Like smoking, alcohol can relax the LES.
  • Elevate your bed. Elevating the entire top half of your body, not just your head, 6 to 8 inches means that gravity is reintroduced, resolving the backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus. 
  • Avoid carbonated beverages. They make you burp and may bring acid up along with the gas. 

Summary 

A burning sensation in your chest is usually caused by a non-life threatening medical condition. This is often due to heartburn or GERD, with diet and lifestyle changes playing a key role in reducing your symptoms.

You should seek prompt medical care if your chest burning sensation is accompanied by worrisome signs, persists for more than a few hours despite treatment, or causes you concern. A healthcare professional can help you to rule out the possibility of heart attack, pulmonary embolism, or stroke. 

A Word From Verywell

Usually, the conditions that cause you to have a burning sensation in your chest are highly treatable. Addressing the cause is likely to result in an increase in your quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can anxiety cause chest pain?

    Yes, in some instances anxiety can cause chest pain. This occurs because stressful triggers can cause physiologic changes in the body, such as a racing heartbeat and muscle tightness in the chest, due to hormones produced by the body during a fight or flight response.

  • How long does it typically take for chest pain to go away?

    The time it takes for chest pain to go away depends on the cause of your chest pain, but non-lethal causes of chest pain usually resolve on their own or with self administered treatment, such as using an inhaler for asthma, within an hour (but usually much sooner than that).

  • When should I be concerned about a burning sensation in my chest?

    If you experience the following additional symptoms you may want to seek medical attention:

    • Squeezing or pressure sensation, especially pain that is worsening or radiating to the left side of the body
    • Pain that travels to your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, or back
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Lightheadedness
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Sweating (especially profuse sweating in a cool area)
    • Racing heartbeat
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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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