Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, which is when some of the stomach contents travel back up into the esophagus or food pipe. Heartburn may feel like a burning pain in the lower chest.

Persistent acid reflux that happens more than twice per week is what experts call gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

A person will feel heartburn when stomach acid flows back up into the esophagus, the pipe that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Heartburn is a symptom of GERD.

The American College of Gastroenterology estimate that more than 15 million people in the United States experience heartburn symptoms every day.

In this article, we discuss heartburn, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

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It is common for people to experience occasional heartburn, and it is rarely a significant cause for concern.

However, a doctor may diagnose recurrent acid reflux as GERD. This condition can have a serious impact on health, and it can indicate other underlying health issues.

People of all ages may develop GERD. Some of the most common causes include obesity and smoking.

The most frequent symptom of acid reflux or heartburn is a feeling of warmth, heat, or burning in the chest and throat. This is due to the stomach acid flowing back up into the esophagus.

Other symptoms include:

  • a burning sensation in the middle of the chest
  • a burning, indigestion-like pain
  • a foul, acrid taste in the mouth

If a person experiences acid reflux symptoms often, they should consult a doctor, who may refer them to a gastroenterologist a specialist in gut medicine for further investigation.

Using some lifestyle and behavioral tips can help prevent or reduce heartburn. Suggestions include:

  • following a healthy diet, with a limited fat intake
  • avoiding eating 2–3 hours before bedtime
  • elevating the head of the bed before lying down
  • avoiding wearing tight-fitting clothes
  • avoiding heavy lifting and straining
  • avoiding food triggers, such as alcohol, caffeine, spicy food, acidic foods, or foods causing gas and bloating
  • reaching or maintaining a moderate weight
  • quitting smoking, if applicable
  • exercising regularly
  • eating smaller meals more frequently

It is of note, however, that these lifestyle modifications may not work for everyone.

According to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), heartburn and indigestion are common in pregnancy due to hormonal changes and the baby pressing against the stomach.

The OWH suggest some diet and lifestyle changes that may help relieve the symptoms. These include:

  • eating five to six small meals throughout the day
  • not lying down within an hour of eating
  • avoiding fatty and spicy foods

A heart attack is when the arteries connected to the heart become blocked. Heartburn, on the other hand, occurs when stomach acid travels back up the esophagus.

Some symptoms of heartburn and a heart attack could be similar, such as chest pain. As a result, some people who are having a heart attack do not take action as they think they have heartburn.

If a person experiences heartburn pain alongside shortness of breath or sweating, this could be a heart-related issue.

Other symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • discomfort in the chest, such as squeezing, fullness, pressure, or pain
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness
  • pain or discomfort in one or both arms, stomach, neck, jaw, or back

If a person has some or all of these symptoms, they should seek emergency medical attention. In the words of the American Heart Association (AHA), “If in doubt, check it out.”

Knowing how to distinguish a heart attack from heartburn can save lives.

Learn more about the differences between heartburn and a heart attack here.

A person may alleviate symptoms of heartburn by using drugs such as:

  • antacids, which are over-the-counter (OTC) medications that help relieve mild heartburn
  • proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which reduce the amount of stomach acid
  • H2 blockers, which are a type of medication that reduces the stomach acid levels and may help heal the esophageal lining

It is important to note that PPIs heal the esophageal lining and treat GERD symptoms more effectively than H2 blockers.

Additionally, H2 blockers can produce various side effects, such as diarrhea, constipation, upset stomach, and headaches.

In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested that manufacturers remove all forms of prescription and OTC ranitidine (Zantac), an H2 blocker, from the market because of its unacceptable levels of N-Nitrosodimethylamine, a probable carcinogen.

Changes to lifestyle and behavior can prevent or improve heartburn symptoms.

A person may prevent heartburn by avoiding acidic foods and drinks that contain caffeine.

Getting more exercise, reaching or maintaining a moderate weight, eating smaller meals, and sitting upright after eating may also help avert heartburn.

Many people experience heartburn occasionally. Usually, it is no cause for concern.

However, if a person has heartburn regularly, they should contact a healthcare professional, who may recommend dietary changes and regular exercise and make suggestions with regard to posture, among other things.

If lifestyle and behavioral changes do not prove effective, a doctor may recommend OTC medications, such as antacids or H2 blockers.

If a person is unsure whether they are experiencing symptoms of heartburn or a heart attack, they should seek immediate medical attention.