Heartburn can feel like an uncomfortable or burning pain in your chest. If you have heartburn, certain types of food and drinks can trigger your symptoms, so you might want to avoid them.

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Heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest, behind your breastbone. It occurs when stomach acid travels back up your esophagus — the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach.

In general, you can manage your heartburn symptoms at home. If frequent heartburn makes it difficult to eat or swallow, however, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor.

Read on to learn more about heartburn.

Heartburn symptoms can range from mild discomfort to extremely uncomfortable. The most common symptom is a burning feeling in your chest and throat.

What does heartburn feel like?

Heartburn feels like an uncomfortable or burning pain in the middle of your chest. You may also experience:

  • a burning sensation in your throat
  • pressure or pain behind your breastbone
  • difficulty swallowing
  • worsening pain after lying down or bending over
  • an acidic, sour, or bitter taste in your mouth
  • coughing or hoarseness

How long does heartburn last?

In general, heartburn symptoms begin shortly after eating and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours.

How long you experience symptoms depends on the underlying cause. It also depends on what you do at the first sign of symptoms. For example, sometimes heartburn symptoms last until your body digests the triggering food. Other times, it goes away if you stand up instead of lying down after eating.

If you take over-the-counter (OTC) antacids or prescription medications as part of a treatment plan, your symptoms might not last as long.

Heartburn typically occurs when contents from the stomach back up into the esophagus, a tube that carries food and fluids from the mouth to the stomach.

Your esophagus connects to your stomach at a juncture known as the lower esophageal sphincter. If the lower esophageal sphincter is functioning properly, it closes when food leaves the esophagus and enters the stomach.

However, in some people, the lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t function properly. This allows the stomach contents to leak back into the esophagus., which can cause heartburn.

Certain conditions and other factors may make it more likely for you to experience heartburn. Risk factors include:

  • Hiatal hernia: A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of your stomach penetrates through the diaphragm, usually by way of a weakness or tear.
  • Pregnancy: Heartburn is common during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester.
  • Smoking: Smoking is associated with an increased chance of developing gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). According to a 2018 review, people who quit or decreased tobacco smoking were three times more likely to have a reduction in their heartburn symptoms.
  • Overweight or obesity: Obesity is a contributing risk factor to GERD. Research has shown that in people with obesity, weight loss can reduce GERD symptoms.
  • Medications: Some medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, sedatives, and blood pressure medications, can increase your risk of heartburn.

Foods to avoid

If you have heartburn, you may find that certain foods and drinks can trigger your symptoms. These may include:

  • carbonated drinks
  • chocolate
  • citrus fruits
  • tomatoes and tomato-based products
  • peppermint
  • fried foods
  • high fat foods
  • spicy foods
  • alcohol

Other triggers that can contribute to heartburn include:

  • eating a large meal
  • lying down immediately after eating
  • wearing tight clothes

If you experience occasional heartburn, a combination of lifestyle changes and medications can help alleviate your symptoms.

Lifestyle changes can also help reduce your symptoms. You might want to try:

  • avoiding foods that trigger your symptoms
  • wearing loose clothing
  • avoiding lying down right after eating
  • speaking with a healthcare professional about a smoking cessation program and other supportive resources, if applicable

You can use OTC medications to reduce discomfort. The FDA identifies three classes of OTC medications for treating occasional heartburn. These include:

  • Antacids: These medications help neutralize stomach acid and can provide quick relief from your symptoms. Some options include:
    • Mylanta
    • Rolaids
    • Tums
    • Alka-Seltzer
    • Gaviscon
  • Histamine-2 (H2) blockers: These reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes. Examples include:
    • cimetidine (Tagamet HB)
    • famotidine (Pepcid Complete or Pepcid AC)
    • nizatidine (Axid AR)
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): These medications reduce the amount of acid in your stomach and can help heal damaged tissue in your esophagus. However, they shouldn’t be taken long term. Options include:
    • lansoprazole (Prevacid 24 HR)
    • esomeprazole (Nexium 24 HR)
    • omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec)
    • omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate (Zegerid)

Although medication can help, they also come with side effects. Antacids can cause constipation or diarrhea, and PPIs can cause headaches, diarrhea, and an upset stomach. Speak with your doctor about any medications you’re already taking to see if you’re at risk for any drug interactions.

If OTC medications do not relieve your symptoms, your doctor may be able to prescribe stronger versions of these medications.

How do antacids work to treat heartburn?

Antacids help neutralize the acid your stomach makes. They provide fast, short-term relief from heartburn symptoms.

While they’re useful in a pinch, they are not intended for daily use. You should take antacids shortly after eating or when you experience symptoms.

Antacids come in liquid, tablet, or gummy form. Most contain one or more of the following ingredients:

  • calcium
  • aluminum
  • magnesium

Be sure to follow the directions on the label and avoid overusing antacids. Speak with your doctor if you have any questions about using an antacid or experience any complications after taking one.

There are many steps you can take to help prevent heartburn. You might want to try:

  • Avoiding foods or drinks that may trigger your symptoms, such as acidic foods, high fat foods, spicy foods, chocolate, alcohol, mint, and carbonated drinks.
  • Waiting a few hours after eating to lie down.
  • Placing blocks or books under your bed to elevate the head of your bed.
  • Avoiding tight-fitting clothes.
  • Eating smaller, more frequent meals rather than two or three large ones.
  • Stopping smoking, if applicable.
  • Maintaining a moderate weight.

Heartburn is common, and many people experience it from time to time. However, you should contact your doctor if you experience heartburn more than twice per week or if you have heartburn that does not improve with treatment.

Contact your doctor if you have heartburn and develop:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • pain with swallowing
  • dark, tarry, or bloody stools
  • shortness of breath
  • pain that radiates from your back to your shoulder
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating while having chest pain

Some people who have heartburn can think they’re having a heart attack because the symptoms can be very similar. Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • severe or crushing chest pain or discomfort
  • difficulty breathing
  • feeling weak, lightheaded, or faint
  • jaw pain
  • arm pain

If you or someone else are experiencing heart attack symptoms, like a burning sensation in the chest, seek immediate medical attention.

A doctor generally diagnoses heartburn based on your symptoms and medical history. During the appointment when you’re diagnosed, your doctor can recommend a treatment plan.

You may need to see your healthcare professional again if lifestyle changes, OTC medication, or prescription medications don’t improve your symptoms. This may be a sign that you have a more serious condition called GERD.

To diagnose GERD, your doctor will review your medical history and ask you about your symptoms. They may also order several tests, including:

  • Ambulatory acid (pH) probe test: Your doctor will pass a small tube through your nose into your esophagus. A sensor at the tip of the tube measures the amount of stomach acid in your esophagus.
  • Esophageal pH monitoring: Your doctor will place a capsule on the lining of your esophagus to measure acid reflux.
  • X-ray: You’ll drink a chalky liquid that coats your upper digestive tract. Your doctor will then use X-ray imaging to look at your esophagus, stomach, and upper intestine.
  • Endoscopy: Your doctor will pass a small tube equipped with a camera down your throat into your stomach to check for an ulcer of the esophagus or stomach lining.
  • Esophageal manometry: Your doctor will place a tube through your nose into your esophagus to measure the contractions of your esophagus when you swallow.

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor will be able to provide you with treatment options to help reduce or eliminate your symptoms.

Occasional heartburn usually isn’t a cause for concern. However, frequent heartburn may be a symptom of GERD, a more serious condition that means you might need prescription medication or surgery.

If left untreated, GERD may lead to additional health problems, such as an inflammation of the esophagus. This is called esophagitis, or Barrett’s esophagus. It causes changes in the lining of the esophagus that can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

Long-term heartburn can also affect your quality of life. If you find it difficult to carry on your daily life or are severely limited in your activities due to heartburn, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor.

Heartburn is a relatively common condition, and most people experience it from time to time.

You can manage heartburn symptoms at home with lifestyle changes, home remedies, and OTC medications. However, if you have frequent or persistent heartburn, you might want to contact your doctor.