Causes and treatments for a burning chest
Many causes of a burning feeling in the chest are not harmful. In fact, just 15–25% of people who visit the emergency room with chest pain have an acute heart problem.
In this article, learn more about what causes a burning chest. We also cover some treatments and home remedies.
Numerous conditions can cause chest burning, including:
A common cause of chest burning is heartburn.
The sensation ranges from mild discomfort to intense pain.
Heartburn occurs when acid from the stomach travels back up the esophagus. It is more common in pregnant women, people with gastroesophageal reflux disease, and those with a hiatal hernia.
Consuming acidic foods and drinks, such as tomatoes and alcohol, may increase the risk of heartburn. Smoking tobacco can also increase the risk.
Some other symptoms of heartburn include:
- burning in the throat
- pain that begins shortly after a meal
- pain that gets worse when lying down
Other gastrointestinal problems
Other gastrointestinal problems may also cause burning chest pain. Some may cause symptoms that mimic those of heartburn.
For example, people with gallstones or liver health problems may experience intense heartburn.
If the pain does not get better after taking an antacid or other heartburn medication, the problem might be due to something else, such as gallstones, liver disease, or pancreatitis.
Some other signs of serious gastrointestinal problems include:
- very dark urine
- very light or infrequent bowel movements
- intense pain anywhere in the abdomen, but especially in the upper right side, under or near the ribs
Muscle or bone injuries
Muscle injuries can cause intense burning in the chest, especially when using the injured muscle to lift heavy objects. Injuries to cartilage or bone may also cause pain and burning in the chest.
Burning chest pain may be a sign of an injured muscle or a problem with bone or cartilage if:
- the pain appears only in certain positions or while lifting heavy objects
- the pain changes with massage or pressure on the area
- there is swelling in the painful area of the chest
A panic attack will not cause a heart attack, but the two can feel similar. When the symptoms occur following a trauma, or in a person with a history of anxiety or panic, a panic attack is more likely than a heart attack. When in doubt, a person should go to the emergency room.
Breastfeeding may cause burning pain in the breasts and chest.
Breastfeeding can cause a range of new and unfamiliar sensations in the chest as the breasts expand, contract, and adjust to feeding an infant.
Some women experience sharp, deep, shooting, or burning pains as part of their milk letdown. Others develop an infection called mastitis, which can cause a burning feeling in the skin and breast tissue.
Some people have a brief spasm in the blood vessels of their nipples after breastfeeding. The pain can be sharp, burning, and intensely painful, but it usually only lasts a few minutes.
Breastfeeding could be the cause of burning chest pain if:
- a woman currently breastfeeds, has recently given birth, or has recently stopped breastfeeding
- the pain is primarily on one or both sides of the chest, not in the middle of the chest
- other changes to the breasts — such as pain in the nipples, an increase in breast size, or skin changes — occur alongside the pain
Although many types of chest pain, including some burning pain, can indicate a problem with the heart, they do not always mean that a person is having a heart attack.
Angina is a term that doctors use to refer to chest pain when the heart does not get enough oxygen. The most common cause of angina is coronary heart disease, which is a condition that blocks blood flow when plaque builds up in the blood vessels.
A doctor may treat angina as a warning sign that a person is at risk of having a heart attack.
It can be difficult to distinguish the pain of angina from that of a heart attack. Even doctors cannot usually tell the difference based on symptoms alone.
For this reason, a person should go to the emergency room for any angina that does not go away or that gets worse over time. A person who has previously had angina but whose angina pattern changes (unstable angina) should also seek emergency care.
Some symptoms of angina include:
- pain, pressure, or burning in the chest
- pain that comes and goes
- feeling winded or breathless
- pain that radiates to the jaw or shoulder
Other vascular health problems
Problems with the blood vessels that carry blood to and away from the heart and lungs may cause chest pain.
For example, an aortic dissection occurs when the aorta, which is a large blood vessel, tears. Without prompt treatment, it can be fatal.
A pulmonary embolism is another blood vessel issue. It occurs when a blood clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs. This can damage the lungs and heart, and it may also be fatal.
Some signs of a blood vessel problem include:
- a sudden ripping, tearing, burning pain in the chest, which may indicate an aortic dissection
- chest pressure or burning that gets worse with exercise
- sudden pain accompanied by difficulty breathing or dizziness
People should always seek emergency medical attention for these symptoms.
Lung health issues
Problems with the lungs can also cause burning in the chest.
For example, lung infections and pneumonia can cause burning pain in the chest or lungs, especially when breathing or during movement or exercise.
People who experience burning pain that makes breathing difficult should see a doctor, as it can be difficult to tell these symptoms from those of a heart attack.
Doctors can also help diagnose and treat other lung health issues, such as pneumonia.
To diagnose the cause of burning in the chest, a doctor will typically perform several tests. These may include:
- a complete medical history
- a physical exam to check heart rate and pulse, look for swelling, and assess muscle and organ health
- blood work to check for infections or changes that may indicate a heart attack or other heart problem
- an electrocardiogram, which measures electrical activity in the heart
- chest X-rays
- CT scans
The treatment options for burning chest pain vary depending on the cause.
For example, heartburn may require a person to take an antacid or make dietary changes, whereas more serious heart or lung conditions often demand comprehensive lifestyle changes.
A person having a heart attack may need blood thinners or surgery, such as bypass surgery.
People should not try to treat chronic chest pain at home, especially if they do not know the underlying cause. Even chronic heartburn can cause long term health problems. Only a doctor can diagnose the cause and recommend appropriate treatment.
Lying down and taking slow, deep breaths can help with minor chest burning.
Some home management strategies can help soothe minor chest burning and determine whether a person needs emergency care.
However, if the pain does not get better, is severe, or indicates a heart attack, they should seek immediate medical attention.
Home remedies for minor causes of chest burning include:
- lying down and taking slow, deep breaths
- taking an antacid
- gently massaging the painful area
- drinking a glass of water
- changing positions
- applying a hot or warm compress to painful or tender breasts
It is not always possible to prevent serious heart, lung, and vascular conditions, but people can reduce their risk by maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising as regularly as possible.
Seeking care for any chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or coronary artery disease, can also reduce the risk of developing complications. Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet that is low in trans fats and sodium can also help.
People with chronic heartburn often find relief from eating fewer acidic foods. Eating smaller, more frequent meals may also help relieve symptoms.
When to see a doctor
Some people avoid seeking medical care for burning chest pain because they fear a particular diagnosis or worry that they are overreacting.
However, burning in the chest can be serious, and prompt medical care can be life saving — especially for heart, vascular, and lung problems.
People who are uncertain of the reason for their pain should seek immediate care.
Go to the emergency room for:
- sudden, intense burning pain in the chest
- chest pain that occurs with other symptoms, such as confusion, loss of consciousness, or difficulty breathing
- intense pressure or pain in the center of the chest
- angina that is different from the person's usual angina pattern
- chest burning that gets steadily worse or does not improve with home treatment
Burning chest pain can occur for many reasons. It is usually due to heartburn or other gastrointestinal issues, but injuries and panic attacks can also cause a burning chest.
More serious conditions, such as a heart attack or aortic dissection, can also cause a burning chest. Anyone experiencing symptoms of these issues should seek medical attention. A doctor can help diagnose and treat the issue.