By Stephanie Booth
March 21, 2019

Heartburn, or acid reflux, develops when stomach acid washes up into your esophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach), causing a burning sensation in your chest and/or throat. About a third of people have heartburn, and 10% suffer from it every day. Read on to find out what heartburn feels like, what the most common heartburn symptoms are, and what to do if you have heartburn signs.

What does heartburn feel like?

Heartburn feels like it sounds: It causes a sharp burning sensation in the chest just behind the breastbone or ribs. The burning might feel like it's coming from your heart, but the fiery feeling is actually in your stomach or esophagus. The burning sensation can last a few minutes, or it can go on for more than two hours. It's typically triggered by eating or drinking. It tends to become worse if you lie down or bend over.

“Heartburn can strike any time of day, but many people notice it more at night and when they’re laying down because the contents in the stomach move up,” Shilpi Agarwal, MD, a family medicine physician in the Washington, DC area, tells Health. Anyone can develop heartburn, but it's most likely to affect asthmatics, pregnant women, and anyone older than 45—especially if you drink, smoke, or are prone to late-evening meals.

Here are the most common signs of heartburn:

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Burning sensation in your chest and/or throat

That acidic sensation just behind your breastbone is the most well-known heartburn symptom. “Your esophagus is lined with cells that aren’t resistant to gastric acid,” C. Prakash Gyawali, MD, professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and spokesperson of the American Gastroenterological Association, tells Health. “When excessive acid comes in contact with the esophageal lining, chemical sensors are stimulated that trigger the sensation of heartburn.” You may notice this right after a meal, especially if you've consumed spicy or acidic food.

Chronic cough

“If you don't feel sick but are always coughing, it could be due to acid reflux,” says Dr. Agarwal. Many people who have a chronic cough due to heartburn do not have other common heartburn symptoms, so it can be hard to diagnose. If your cough tends to happen after you eat, it may be heartburn-related.

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Chest tightness or pain

Some people with heartburn experience chest pains or chest tightness, not simply a burning sensation in the chest. “The first step is to make sure it’s not from cardiac issues,” Dr. Gyawali cautions. “Cardiac disease can be deadly, while esophageal reflux symptoms are mostly an annoyance.” If you have heart issues and heartburn, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.

Hoarseness

Developing a raspy voice or losing your voice entirely can be another symptom of heartburn. It happens when harsh stomach acid washes up into your esophagus to your larynx, aka your voice box.

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Sore throat

A sore throat is a symptom you might assoicate with a cold or the flu, but it also could be caused by digestive problems like heartburn. This is especially true if it's a chronic sore throat and you have no other upper respiratory symptoms, like sneezing or a runny nose.

Nausea

Nausea has many causes, but if you experience it right after meals and can't identify another reason for it, heartburn could be to blame.

Throwing up liquid in your mouth

“When the volume of gastric content refluxing into the esophagus is high enough, a sensation of liquid coming up the chest can be felt,” says Dr. Gyawali. Doctors call this “acid regurgitation." Basically, you’ll feel like you just threw up a little in your mouth. The liquid may be warm and have a sour, salty, or acidic taste. Some people also feel like they have something “stuck” in their throat or chest.

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Teeth problems

When harsh gastric fluids wash up into your mouth often, they can start to erode the enamel on your teeth, Dr. Gyawali says. Your dentist may notice a problem before you do.

How to ease heartburn symptoms

Many people get relief from their heartburn symptoms by making a few easy lifestyle changes. Top of the list? “Stay away from trigger foods,” advises Dr. Agarwal. Everyone is different, but these trigger foods typically include onions, tomatoes and tomato sauces, spicy foods, citrus fruits, red wine, chocolate, peppermint, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks, and high-fat foods.

Your heartburn symptoms may also ease up if you maintain a healthy weight, give up smoking, avoid eating late at night (because when you lie down, the stomach acid digesting your food is more likely to wash up your throat), and keep stress under control.

If your heartburn symptoms persist, don’t write them off. While taking an over-the-counter antiacid every now and then is fine, you don’t want to rely on them for the rest of your life. You could be masking symptoms that indicate a more serious problem, Atif Iqbal, MD, medical director of the Digestive Care Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, tells Health.

Chronic heartburn can also lead to lasting damage in your esophagus. If you experience heartburn symptoms two or more times a week, talk to your doctor; you may also need to consult a gastroenterologist.

If what you think is hearburn becomes much more intense and causes shortness of breath, cold sweats, or dizziness, call 911; these could be the symptoms of a heart attack or heart issue.

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