What Is Heartburn?

Just about everyone experiences heartburn. It's that uncomfortable burning sensation you get in the middle of your chest, sometimes rising to the back of your throat.

It may occasionally happen for a few minutes after you eat your favorite spicy dish or have a big meal too close to bedtime. Heartburn can also become a constant or recurring problem, a sign of an underlying condition.

This article discusses heartburn symptoms, how to get relief, and when heartburn could reveal a bigger problem.

A woman speaking with her doctor at a telehealth visit

Natalia Gdovskaia / Getty Images

Symptoms of Heartburn: What Does Heartburn Feel Like?

Heartburn is a painful, burning sensation. You might feel it in the middle of your chest, behind the breastbone, even though it doesn't involve the heart. You might also feel the burn rising to your throat.

Other symptoms can include:

  • A sour or acidic taste in your mouth
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing
  • Feeling like you have a lump in your throat

Symptoms can start right after eating or when you lie down or bend over. They can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux vs. GERD

These terms are often used interchangeably because they're related. However, these conditions are not the same:

  • Heartburn is a common symptom of acid reflux and GERD. It's a burning sensation behind the breastbone, neck, or throat. It tends to act up after meals or when you're lying down. 
  • Acid reflux is when acids or foods from the stomach travel back up through the esophagus to the back of the mouth. 
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) happens when the closure of the lower esophagus is so weak that it opens when it shouldn't. Symptoms include heartburn, acid reflux, chest pain, shortness of breath, and trouble swallowing.

What Causes Heartburn?

A valve in the lower esophageal sphincter connects the esophagus and the stomach. This valve keeps the contents of your stomach from going back up. When the valve doesn't work properly, stomach acids and food can reenter the esophagus and flow toward the throat. Unlike the stomach, the esophagus and throat lack protection from these acids.

It's unclear why this happens, but some foods can affect the sphincter. It can also be due to factors such as:

Constant Heartburn That Won’t Go Away

Anyone can get heartburn from time to time. But constant heartburn may indicate an underlying health problem such as:

  • GERD
  • Hiatal hernia (when part of the stomach pushes into the chest)
  • Esophagitis (irritation or inflammation of the esophagus)
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Esophageal motility disorders (inability of food to move through the esophagus)

Daily vs. Occasional Heartburn 

Occasional heartburn can happen when you overeat or eat something particularly acidic, fatty, or spicy. It happens to most of us and is not usually a cause for concern.

If you have unexplained heartburn daily, it's time to speak with a healthcare provider. It could mean you have an underlying health condition that should be treated.

Frequent, untreated heartburn can damage the esophagus, increasing the risk for conditions such as Barrett's esophagus and esophageal cancer.

Heartburn Triggers

Some common foods that can cause heartburn are:

  • Fatty, spicy, and acidic foods
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Chocolate
  • Cheese
  • Peppermint
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol

Other triggers include smoking, certain medicines, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen), and stress.

How to Get Rid of Heartburn

Over-the-counter (OTC) heartburn medications may help relieve occasional heartburn. Antacids work by neutralizing acid in the stomach—other medicines work by stopping fluids from flowing into the stomach or halting the production of stomach fluids.

And since heartburn can worsen when you lie down, it may help to sit upright until it subsides.

Home Remedies for Heartburn Relief

You can also try some of these home remedies to temporarily soothe heartburn:

  • Nonfat milk or low-fat yogurt
  • Baking soda
  • Ginger
  • Chewing gum

Heartburn During Pregnancy

Heartburn during pregnancy is common, affecting 17% to 45% of pregnant people. Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy can affect the esophageal sphincter. There's also added pressure from the growing uterus. And you may have heartburn during pregnancy for the same reasons nonpregnant people have heartburn.

Complications from heartburn in pregnancy are rare. But it's important to let your healthcare provider know you're having heartburn, especially if you have accompanying symptoms that should be investigated. You can also discuss which OTC products and home remedies are safest.

Can You Prevent Heartburn?

You may be able to prevent an occasional bout of heartburn with a few lifestyle adjustments, such as:

  • Note which foods trigger heartburn so you can avoid them or at least cut them down.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Wait two to three hours after eating before you lie down.
  • Add pillows or raise the head of your bed about 6 inches, so your chest is higher than your waist.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Take OTC heartburn relief medicines as needed.

Foods that may help prevent heartburn include:

  • Whole grains (oatmeal, couscous, and brown rice)
  • Root vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, and beets)
  • Green vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, and green beans)
  • Alkaline foods (bananas, melon, cauliflower, fennel, and nuts)
  • High-water foods (celery, cucumbers, lettuce, watermelon, broth, and herbal teas)

When to See a Healthcare Provider for Severe Heartburn

You shouldn't need to make a special appointment for occasional heartburn. But it's a good idea to inform your healthcare provider at your next visit.

See a provider if you've had heartburn more than twice a week or have taken OTC medicines for over two weeks with no relief. Seek immediate care if you also have symptoms such as:

  • Chest pains
  • Persistent vomiting or vomiting with blood
  • Bloody stools
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss

Understanding the reason for your heartburn is the first step in getting the proper treatment.

15 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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By Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer, health reporter, and author of two books about her personal health experiences.