Diseases & Conditions

Heartburn Symptoms

What is heartburn?

Heartburn happens when your stomach acid flows back into your esophagus, or food pipe. This causes an uncomfortable burning feeling in your chest that can move up to your neck and throat. You may also have a bitter or sour taste in the back of your throat. Heartburn can last from a few minutes to several hours, and often feels worse after you eat.

Occasional heartburn is common, and can usually be relieved by over-the-counter antacids. The condition is also known as acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), acid indigestion, and reflux.

If you have heartburn often and it is severe, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If this is the case, talk to your doctor.

What does heartburn feel like?

Heartburn symptoms include:

  • A burning feeling in the chest just behind the breastbone that happens after eating and lasts a few minutes to several hours
  • Chest pain, especially after bending over, lying down or eating
  • Burning in the throat
  • Hot, sour, acidic, or salty tasting fluid at the back of the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A feeling of food “sticking” in the middle of the chest or throat

What causes heartburn?

Several factors may lead to heartburn or make it feel worse. These include:

Eating habits
  • Eating large food portions
  • Eating certain foods such as onions, chocolate, peppermint, high-fat foods, citrus fruits, garlic, spicy foods, and tomatoes or tomato-based products
  • Drinking alcohol, citrus juices, caffeinated beverages, and carbonated beverages
  • Eating shortly before bedtime
Lifestyle habits
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Wearing tight clothes and belts
  • Stress
Medical reasons
  • Pregnancy
  • Hiatal hernia (when the stomach bulges up into the chest)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Use of certain medicines, especially some anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin

When should I call my doctor about my heartburn?

Even though heartburn is common, it can sometimes lead to more serious health problems. Severe, chronic heartburn/GERD has been linked to inflammation and narrowing of the esophagus, respiratory problems, chronic cough, and Barrett’s esophagus, which may lead to esophageal cancer.

You should contact your doctor if:

  • Your heartburn symptoms become more severe or frequent.
  • It is hard or hurts to swallow.
  • Your heartburn causes you to vomit.
  • You have had substantial, unexpected weight loss.
  • You take over-the-counter antacids for more than two weeks (or for a longer time than recommended on the label) and you still have heartburn symptoms.
  • You have heartburn symptoms even after taking prescription or non-prescription medicines.
  • You have serious hoarseness or wheezing.
  • Your discomfort interferes with your lifestyle or daily activities.

How do I prevent and manage my heartburn?

You can prevent and manage your heartburn by making changes in your diet and lifestyle. The first things to try are the following:

  • Don't go to bed with a full stomach. Eat meals at least three to four hours before you lie down. This gives the stomach a chance to empty and reduces the chance of heartburn.
  • Don't overeat. Decrease the size of portions at meal times, or eat four to five small meals instead of three large ones.
  • Eat slowly. Remember to put your fork down between bites.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes.

You may want to try other approaches, in which you:

  • Avoid the foods and beverages that trigger your heartburn symptoms. Write down the foods that seem to cause your discomfort in a heartburn diary.
  • Shed some pounds to relieve your symptoms. If you are overweight, follow a healthy weight loss plan.
  • Stop smoking. Nicotine can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter (or LES). This muscle controls the opening between the esophagus and stomach The LES prevents the acid-containing contents of the stomach from entering the esophagus.
  • Avoid alcohol. Instead of drinking, try exercise, walking, meditation, stretching, or deep breathing to relieve stress.
  • Drink warm liquids, such as herbal tea.
  • Keep track of when heartburn hits and the specific activities that seem to trigger the incidents.

If your heartburn gets worse after you lie down:

  • Try to sleep on your left side. This may help digestion and the removal of acid from your stomach and esophagus more quickly.
  • Raise the head of your bed so that your head and chest are higher than your feet. Place 6-inch blocks or books under the bed posts at the head of the bed. Do not use piles of pillows. They may cause you to put more pressure on your stomach and make your heartburn worse.
  • Eat earlier. Try not to eat within three to four hours before you go to sleep.

If your heartburn gets worse after you exercise:

  • Wait at least two hours after a meal before exercising. If you work out any sooner, you may trigger heartburn.
  • Drink plenty of water before and during exercise. Water aids digestion and also prevents dehydration.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 5/22/2015...#9617