What Does Heartburn Feel Like?

Heartburn feels like a burning sensation behind the breastbone in the middle of the chest.

Occasional heartburn is usually nothing to worry about and goes away on its own. Chronic heartburn may indicate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which should prompt seeing a healthcare provider. Some lifestyle factors may also cause chronic heartburn.

This article discusses what heartburn feels like, what causes it, and when it can be managed at home or requires help from a healthcare provider.

person with heartburn

ay Yuno / Getty Images

How to Describe the the Feeling of Heartburn

Heartburn feels like an uncomfortable burning sensation in the middle of the chest.

It is a symptom of acid reflux (when acidic stomach contents back up into the esophagus and return to your throat). The stomach acid traveling through your esophagus (the tube that carries food between your mouth and stomach) causes a burning sensation.

In addition to a burning sensation in your chest, you may taste stomach acid or food in the back of your throat. 

Heartburn vs. GERD

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more serious version of acid reflux. People who experience heartburn more than twice a week often have GERD.

What Are the Symptoms of Heartburn?

Heartburn can be triggered by different things in different people, but the symptoms of heartburn are usually similar.

Common symptoms of heartburn include:

  • Burning sensation in the chest, which usually occurs shortly after eating
  • Sour or bitter taste in the mouth from stomach contents reaching the mouth
  • Burning feeling in the throat from stomach acids traveling up the esophagus
  • Chronic coughing or wheezing from acid refluxing and getting in the airway
  • Difficulty swallowing, which may be accompanied by chest pressure or feeling like food is sticking in the throat

Heartburn is often worse in the evening, after eating, or when bending over or lying down, as gravity can push the stomach acids in the wrong direction. 

Heartburn Feeling but Not Heartburn: Other Causes

While it’s common to have a burning feeling in the chest due to acid reflux, it’s not the only cause of this sensation.

Knowing when it’s heartburn or something else is important in understanding whether it can be treated at home or requires medical attention.

Heartburn vs. Heart Attack

Differentiating between heartburn and chest pain is essential in determining whether the burning sensation is a sign of heartburn or a sign of a heart attack.

It can be scary to feel a burning sensation in the chest, as chest pain is one of the major symptoms of a heart attack. However, chest pain associated with a heart attack feels more like uncomfortable pressure, fullness, and squeezing rather than a burning sensation that may or may not travel up to the throat. 

Other major symptoms of a heart attack that help set it apart from those of heartburn include:

  • Feeling light-headed, weak, or faint
  • Discomfort or pain in the back, neck, or jaw
  • Discomfort or pain in one or both shoulders or arms
  • Shortness of breath

Women may experience different symptoms of a heart attack, some of which may feel similar to heartburn. In addition to the above major heart attack symptoms, women may experience:

  • Heartburn 
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Indigestion
  • Extreme fatigue

Even though heartburn and associated symptoms like indigestion and feeling nauseated may be symptoms of a heart attack in women, they do not always mean a heart attack is occurring. However, if these symptoms are accompanied by one or more of the major symptoms of a heart attack, you should seek emergency medical attention.

Heartburn and Pregnancy

It’s common to get heartburn when pregnant for the following two reasons:

  • Hormones
  • The growing uterus

Pregnancy hormones can cause the lower esophageal sphincter—the valve at the top of the stomach—to not close properly, letting acidic stomach contents back up into the esophagus.

Also, as the baby grows, so does the uterus, which can then press against the stomach and cause acid reflux. 

Heartburn From Hiatal Hernia

A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach bulges through an opening called the hiatus in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the chest and abdomen and keeps stomach acid from returning to your esophagus. A hiatal hernia makes it easier for some stomach acid to increase and cause heartburn.

Usually, the cause of hiatal hernia is unknown, though weakening of the surrounding muscles, an injury, and birth defects are thought to play a role. In addition, some risk factors of hiatal hernia include:

  • Being over age 50
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

Other Causes of Heartburn

Sometimes heartburn is occasional and tied to certain triggers like eating spicy, fried, greasy, or fatty foods or from lying down after eating. It can also be tied to lifestyle factors such as:

  • Smoking: Smoking weakens the lower esophageal sphincter and allows stomach acid to flow the wrong way into your esophagus.
  • Having obesity: Obesity can cause greater relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter and increase pressure in the abdomen due to adipose tissue (body fat) putting pressure on the abdomen. Both factors can lead to stomach acids being pushed into the esophagus.
  • Medications: Some medications can cause GERD or make GERD worse, including calcium channel blockers, benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants, some asthma medications, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen).

How Long Does the Heartburn Feeling Last?

How long heartburn lasts depends on what is causing the heartburn. It may last from a few minutes to a few hours. 

For example, if heartburn is caused by something you ate, like a spicy or greasy meal, heartburn should go away once the food passes through your digestive system. However, heartburn may come back when bending over or lying down and sleeping. This is because gravity can cause any lingering acidic stomach contents to be pushed up into the esophagus. This type of heartburn will go away on its own.

Heartburn that occurs often, such as a couple of times a week or more, is likely a sign of GERD or another underlying condition that requires medical attention to treat or manage.

Burning Chest Sensation: Home Remedies

In addition to lifestyle changes, such as not smoking and avoiding trigger foods, natural remedies may relieve the occasional heartburn. 

It’s important to remember that natural remedies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not highly researched. It’s best to speak to a healthcare provider before trying any natural remedies for heartburn.

Some natural remedies that may help control acid reflux and therefore prevent heartburn include:

  • Baking soda
  • Ripe bananas
  • Turmeric/curcumin
  • Aloe juice
  • Apple cider vinegar

Other practical remedies to help prevent heartburn include:

  • Keeping a food journal to learn your trigger foods so you can avoid them
  • Eating slowly and trying not to overeat
  • Not eating right before lying down or exercising
  • Wearing loose clothing or loosening tight clothing (like a belt) during and after a meal
  • Sleeping with your head slightly elevated

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Occasional heartburn is generally nothing to worry about and can be discussed with a healthcare provider during a routine appointment. A healthcare provider may prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) medications to help relieve occasional heartburn. Be sure to get guidance on how often the medication should be taken.

Heartburn that happens a couple times a week or more is worth seeing a healthcare provider about sooner than later. Frequent heartburn may be a sign of GERD, which, left untreated, can lead to more serious health issues such as damage to the esophagus.

If you have chronic heartburn, your healthcare provider will ask about your lifestyle habits or medications to better understand what’s causing your frequent heartburn and what can be changed to manage it.


Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, which is when stomach acids travel in the wrong direction, backing up into the esophagus and the throat. A burning sensation in the middle of the chest is a telltale sign of heartburn.

Occasional heartburn is not serious and can usually be managed at home. Chronic heartburn is more serious and should be discussed with a healthcare provider so that the underlying cause can be identified and appropriate treatment started sooner than later.

9 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.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD: What's the difference?

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart attack symptoms, risk, and recovery.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women and heart disease.

  4. Nemours KidsHealth. How can I deal with heartburn during pregnancy?

  5. MedlinePlus. Hiatal hernia.

  6. Chang P, Friedenberg F. Obesity and GERDGastroenterol Clin North Am. 2014;43(1):161-173. doi:10.1016/j.gtc.2013.11.009

  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms and causes of GER & GERD.

  8. MedlinePlus. GERD.

  9. Clarrett DM, Hachem C. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)Mo Med. 2018;115(3):214-218.

By Emily Brown, MPH
Emily is a health communication consultant, writer, and editor at EVR Creative, specializing in public health research and health promotion. With a scientific background and a passion for creative writing, her work illustrates the value of evidence-based information and creativity in advancing public health.