How to Know if You Have Heartburn

Four Parts:Recognizing Heartburn SymptomsDifferentiating Heartburn From Other DiseasesKnowing When to See the DoctorKnowing the Risk Factors for Heartburn

Heartburn, also known as acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), is an uncomfortable hot or burning sensation in the central chest, just behind the breastbone.[1] Heartburn can be extremely painful, and it's important to get it treated if you do have it. Recognizing the symptoms is the first step towards a diagnosis.

Part 1
Recognizing Heartburn Symptoms

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    Watch for a burning sensation in your chest. The most common symptom of heartburn is a burning feeling inside your throat and chest that occurs after eating. Heartburn is also known as acid reflux for a reason; stomach acid comes back up your esophagus when it doesn't close properly, causing the burning sensation.[2]
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    Monitor how you feel after you eat. Heartburn may occur a few minutes to a few hours after eating. It may last for just a few seconds, or it can last for hours, sometimes coming and going during that time. Also, if you already have heartburn, it can get worse after you eat.[3]
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    Notice if the pain increases when you lie down. Lying down or bending after eating can lead to or increase heartburn. Because acid reflux happens when the sphincter at the lower end of esophagus lets acid up into your esophagus, gravity can work against you when you're lying down. It can help the acid flow back into your esophagus more easily.
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    Check for a burning sensation in your throat. You may only get this symptom if your heartburn is severe. Sometimes, the acid travels all the way up to the back of your throat, and you may taste the acid or feel a burning sensation back there.[4] This symptom may cause you to cough. You may also find it difficult to swallow for a few minutes.[5]
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    Look for signs of GERD without heartburn. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more frequent, severe form of acid reflux. However, you can still have the disease without the feeling of heartburn. Symptoms of GERD without heartburn include hoarseness when you wake up, pain in the chest (not burning), and the feeling that you have something stuck in the back of your throat.[6]

Part 2
Differentiating Heartburn From Other Diseases

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    Know the difference between acid reflux and a heart attack. Pain from a heart attack generally feels like squeezing or tightening in the chest. Oftentimes, you may have jaw or back pain in addition to pain in your chest. You may also feel it in your arms. It can feel different from heartburn pain, which usually moves up into your chest and burns.[7]
    • However, acid reflux can be a sign of a heart attack, so if you're ever unsure, you should go to the emergency room.[8]
    • Other symptoms of heart attacks include breaking out in a cold sweat, not being able to breath properly, feeling very tired, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and having jaw and arm pain.[9]
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    Understand how asthma can act like GERD. You may have been diagnosed with asthma as an adult if you have frequent coughing after meals or shortness of breath. However, sometimes acid reflux looks much like asthma. The main way you can tell that it is actually acid reflux is if you mostly have asthma attacks at night or if you often have them when you lie down. Ask your doctor if your asthma could really be acid reflux, or talk to her if you think acid reflux may be making your asthma worse.[10]
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    Check for GERD with ear, nose, and throat problems. Because GERD affects these systems, sometimes it is misdiagnosed as laryngitis. It can also exhibit as a long-term cough or sore throat. If these problems are chronic for you, ask your doctor about the possibility of it being GERD instead.[11]

Part 3
Knowing When to See the Doctor

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    Go to the emergency room with severe chest pain. If you are having severe chest pain, you should call an ambulance or go to the emergency room whether you think it's acid reflux or not. It could be a heart attack instead of acid reflux.[12]
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    Visit the emergency room if you have other symptoms of a heart attack. If you have shortness of breath, are dizzy, or break out in a cold sweat, go to the emergency room or call an ambulance. You should have your heart checked out to make sure it's ok.[13]
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    Visit your doctor if your heartburn is chronic. Having heartburn regularly or having chronic night symptoms is a sign of GERD. It can also lead to complications, such as food sticking in the bottom of your esophagus. Additionally, if you don't control the symptoms, you can be at higher risk for other diseases, such as esophageal complications or esophageal cancer.[14]
    • Treatment includes over the counter medications and antacids as well as proton pump inhibitors. It is important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms because there are very effective medications available that can relieve you of discomfort.
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    Go to the doctor if your stools are dark or bloody. Additionally, see a doctor if you are vomiting blood or if you feel like food is getting stuck in your esophagus. These could be signs that your acid reflux has developed complications. Other serious symptoms include feeling like you're choking or unexplained weight loss. [15]

Part 4
Knowing the Risk Factors for Heartburn

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    Understand that being overweight can cause heartburn. Excess fat can increase pressure on your stomach. The added pressure within the stomach can in turn cause the stomach to push acid towards the esophagus.[16]
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    Be aware that you may experience more heartburn while pregnant. During pregnancy, the hormone progesterone is released into the bloodstream. This hormone helps you uterus walls to stretch by relaxing them. However, it can also relax your esophageal sphincter, causing acid reflux. Moreover, as the baby grows in size, it can put additional pressure on the stomach.[17]
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    Know that smoking can cause heartburn. Smoking can also affect the sphincter at the bottom of your esophagus, weakening it. In turn, you have an increased risk for acid reflux.[18]
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    Know what foods and drinks increase your potential for heartburn. For instance, spicy foods and fatty foods can both increase your chances of heartburn. Acidic foods, such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruit, can also cause you problems. You may also see increased heartburn with chocolate, peppermint, and onions. In beverages, alcohol and caffeinated drinks are ones that can cause heartburn.[19]
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    Be aware that medications can lead to heartburn. The most common type of drugs in this category are NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). They can both cause heartburn and make it worse if you already have it.[20]


  • If you experience these symptoms, it is wise to keep a record of your attacks. Write down the time and date when you have symptoms, as well as what you ate beforehand. It may help you identify specific food triggers.


  • If you experience these symptoms frequently, talk to your doctor about possible treatment options.

Sources and Citations


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Categories: Cardiovascular Health and Blood Pressure