If you experience burning in your chest after eating, you may have heartburn. A number of conditions can lead to heartburn or make it worse.
Symptoms of heartburn
You've just turned in for the night and are starting to relax, but then you feel a burning sensation in your chest. You sit up, and it seems to get better. But as soon as you lay back down, the pain comes back. If you've experienced this before, you can credit the burning and discomfort to heartburn. Heartburn occurs when stomach acid travels up into your esophagus and burns its lining.
Common accompanying symptoms
If you're experiencing heartburn, it's also likely to experience:
- Burning sensation in the chest: Located behind the breastbone
- Discomfort that typically presents itself after eating
- Chest pain: Often behind the breastbone
- Burning in the throat
- Strange taste(s): Such as sour, acidic, or salty fluid toward the throat
- Feeling as if food is stuck in your throat
- Regurgitating food
If you only occasionally experience heartburn symptoms, you aren't alone, and probably don't need to worry about an underlying medical issue. If you're battling heartburn daily or close to it, you should see a physician.
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Causes of heartburn
The following details may help you better understand your heartburn symptoms. You should see a physician for persistent or worsening heartburn and a proper diagnosis.
You may be experiencing heartburn due to lifestyle habits or certain events.
- Stress: If you find yourself under tremendous amounts of stress on a regular basis, heartburn can begin to occur frequently, even if you've never experienced it before.
- Eating habits: Eating spicy food, garlic, citrus, deep-fried or fatty foods, onions, tomatoes, tomato sauce, pizza, or chocolate can cause heartburn. Drinking tomato juice, citrus juice, caffeinated beverages, carbonated beverages, or alcohol can also lead to heartburn. Heartburn is more likely if you eat right before bed, have midnight snacks, or eat after drinking alcohol.
- Being overweight: Obesity causes a variety of issues, including heartburn.
- Smoking: This is a huge cause of frequent heartburn symptoms.
Heartburn may be related to other medical conditions, such as the following.
- Acid reflux disease: Acid reflux can be caused by anatomic issues in the stomach and esophagus, such as a hiatal hernia. This happens when the upper portion of the stomach moves up into the chest and allows stomach acid to easily enter the esophagus.
- Peptic ulcer disease: Heartburn is a common issue in people with ulcers.
- Pregnancy: Heartburn is a common symptom of pregnancy. Though annoying, it usually disappears immediately after giving birth.
- Heart disease or heart attack: Sometimes people feel they have heartburn, when in fact its a heart attack. If you are having chest pain, this needs immediate medical attention.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) in infants refers to the passage of stomach contents into the throat causing troublesome symptoms, such as feeding intolerance, inadequate oral intake of calories and/or poor weight gain. Vomiting or visible regurgitation ..
Indigestion, also called upset stomach, dyspepsia, or functional dyspepsia, is not a disease but a collection of very common symptoms. Note: Heartburn is a separate condition.
Common causes are eating too much or too rapidly; greasy or spicy foods; overdoing caffeine, alcohol, or carbonated beverages; smoking; and anxiety. Some antibiotics, pain relievers, and vitamin/mineral supplements can cause indigestion.
The most common symptoms are pain, discomfort, and bloating in the upper abdomen soon after eating.
Indigestion that lasts longer than two weeks, and does not respond to simple treatment, may indicate a more serious condition. Upper abdominal pain that radiates to the jaw, neck, or arm is a medical emergency.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. If the symptoms began suddenly, laboratory tests on blood, breath, and stool may be ordered. Upper endoscopy or abdominal x-ray may be done.
For functional dyspepsia – "ordinary" indigestion – treatment and prevention are the same. Eating five or six smaller meals per day with lighter, simpler food; managing stress; and finding alternatives for some medications will provide relief.
Top Symptoms: nausea, stomach bloating, dyspeptic symptoms, bloating after meals, vomiting
Symptoms that always occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): dyspeptic symptoms
Symptoms that never occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): vomiting (old) blood or passing tarry stools, rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea, fever
Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, is a condition that causes pain or discomfort in the stomach after eating. In some cases, indigestion also causes heartburn, burping, and nausea. Indigestion or dyspepsia is a very common complaint and in most cases there is no serious underlying cause. This is when doctors call it 'functional'.
Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, nausea, dyspeptic symptoms, bloating after meals, vomiting
Symptoms that always occur with functional dyspepsia/indigestion: dyspeptic symptoms
Symptoms that never occur with functional dyspepsia/indigestion: vomiting (old) blood or passing tarry stools, rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea, fever
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Barrett esophagus is a condition in which the tissue lining the esophagus changes. These changes occur after longstanding gastro-esophageal reflux. Symptoms of gastro-esophageal reflux can be regurgitation, heartburn. Barretts esophagus is associated with a risk of developing malignant esophageal disease.
Top Symptoms: nausea, regurgitation, heartburn, sore throat, dry cough
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Achalasia is a disorder of the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. This condition affects the ability of the esophagus to move food into the stomach.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: pain below the ribs, regurgitation, unintentional weight loss, heartburn, deep chest pain, behind the breast bone
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Spasm of the esophagus
The esophagus is the muscular tube that passes behind the heart, and carries food, liquid, and saliva from the mouth to the stomach. In a condition called diffuse esophageal spasm (DES), the tube contracts uncontrollably, causing trouble swallowing and chest pain.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: dry cough, deep chest pain, behind the breast bone, heartburn, trouble swallowing, burning chest pain
Symptoms that never occur with spasm of the esophagus: shortness of breath
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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Heartburn treatments and relief
You can try the following lifestyle changes to help combat heartburn symptoms.
- Eat smarter: Avoid eating at least three hours before bed, decrease the size of your portions or eat smaller portions throughout the day, and don't eat too quickly. Limit or remove acidic foods and drinks from your diet, especially alcohol.
- Lose weight: This will help your health and lessen heartburn.
- Quit smoking: This helps a variety of health issues, including heartburn.
- Raise the head of your bed: Try sleeping on your left side or with your head elevated. You can either raise the edge of your bed on cinder blocks or use pillows.
- Medication: There are both prescription and over-the-counter medications that can help prevent heartburn. Antacids can provide almost immediate relief. Proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers are for more chronic symptoms.
- Baking soda: Baking soda can neutralize stomach acid. Try mixing a teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of water and drinking it as soon as symptoms begin.
When to see a doctor
If you're experiencing any of the following heartburn symptoms, it's time to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
- Your heartburn symptoms increase in frequency and severity
- You have trouble swallowing liquids or solids
- Your heartburn sometimes causes you to vomit
- You begin to lose weight unintentionally
- You rely on antacids for more than two weeks on a consistent basis
- Heartburn medication does not seem to help
FAQs about heartburn
Can stress cause heartburn?
Stress can make heartburn worse. Some believe that daily stress can alter your threshold for pain, making you more sensitive. Some studies also show that stress can exacerbate the damage acid does to the esophagus.
How to know if you have heartburn?
Heartburn often presents in the form of chest pain, regurgitation (acidic material mixed with small amounts of undigested food), and difficulty swallowing. Sometimes it also triggers cough and the sensation of having a lump in the throat.
What causes frequent heartburn?
One common cause of frequent heartburn is a weak or relaxed lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a circular ring of muscle of the esophagus that prevents the backup of stomach content into the esophagus. If the diaphragm muscle is too weak, the stomach can also partially slip through the diaphragm into the chest (hiatus hernia), making acid reflux more likely. Obesity and pregnancy are common contributing factors.
What does heartburn look like?
Acid reflux is when the acid that is normally in the stomach backs up into the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. A small amount of acid reflux is normal. If the reflux happens frequently, it can give the sensation of heartburn as a result of irritation to the esophageal lining.
What does heartburn feel like when pregnant?
Heartburn occurs in 30–50% of pregnancies as the esophageal sphincter become more lax than usual. It can present as a burning sensation in the chest and/or throat, an acid taste in the mouth, stomach or chest pain, nausea/vomiting, trouble swallowing, a raspy voice or sore throat, or a cough.
Questions your doctor may ask about heartburn
- Do you burp up food or liquids after a meal?
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Do you currently smoke?
- What is your body mass?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
- Heartburn. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated December 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
- Naliboff BD, Mayer M, Fass R, et al. The effect of life stress on symptoms of heartburn. Psychosom Med. 2004;66(3):426-434. NCBI Link.
- Diet changes for GERD. IFFGD. Updated November 7, 2017. IFFGD Link.
- Smoking and the digestive system. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Published September 2013. NIDDK Link.
- Hiatal hernia. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated April 30, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
- Warning signs of a heart attack. American Heart Association. Updated June 30, 2016. AHA Link.
- Gerson LB. Treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease during pregnancy. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2012;8(11):763-4. NCBI Link.