What does heartburn feel like? Symptoms & causes

Heartburn is a common sensation that feels like pain and burning around your heart. But the sensation is actually coming from the esophagus, which is the tube that runs from your mouth to your stomach.  As the acid in your stomach travels backward into your esophagus, it causes a burning sensation.

For most people, heartburn only happens occasionally due to eating too much high-fat or spicy foods. But for some, heartburn is chronic and may lead to a diagnosis called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Heartburn symptoms

The main symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest. Being overweight can make heartburn worse. 

Other symptoms may include:

Chest pain after eating

Heartburn is typically triggered by eating, especially high-fat, acidic or spicy foods. Alcohol and coffee can also trigger heartburn in some people. Symptoms can last for a few minutes or up to a few hours.

Back of the throat burning pain

Since heartburn is caused by acid moving up the esophagus, sometimes the acid can reach the back of the throat, causing soreness, pain or burning. 

Sour taste in the mouth

Stomach acid rising up the esophagus can leave a sour, salty or acidic taste in your mouth. 

Chronic coughing

The acid from the stomach can trigger a cough reflex. If the coughing becomes severe, it may cause vomiting.

Causes of heartburn 

Heartburn is caused by stomach acid moving out of the stomach and up the esophagus. After you eat, the muscle at the bottom of the esophagus has to relax to let the food pass. Normally, the muscle will tighten back up once the food has passed.

But if the muscle is not working correctly or if the stomach is simply too full for it to tighten back up, this is when heartburn happens. The burning sensation in the chest can be worse if you bend over or lie down because the acid can move up further into the esophagus. 

Certain foods are more likely to cause heartburn than others. These may include:

  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Coffee
  • Citrus fruits
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Chili powder
  • Fatty foods
  • Fried foods
  • Peppermint
  • Pizza
  • Spicy foods
  • Tomato-based foods

Being overweight or pregnant can also make heartburn worse.

Heartburn vs. acid reflux

Heartburn and acid reflux are typically used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. Acid reflux is when stomach contents move up into the esophagus, and the sensation that occurs is called heartburn. When acid reflux becomes chronic, this is called GERD.

Bigger risks of heartburn

Chronic heartburn, or GERD, requires medical evaluation and treatment. If left untreated, it can cause damage and precancerous changes to the esophagus. A few complications caused by chronic heartburn include:

Esophageal strictures

Esophageal strictures are a narrowing or tightening of the esophagus caused by inflammation or heartburn-related damage. This can lead to difficulty swallowing. 

Intestinal metaplasia

Inflammation of the esophagus caused by stomach acid can lead to precancerous changes in the esophagus called intestinal metaplasia

Esophageal cancer

If left untreated, the inflammation caused by GERD can lead to cancer. This is why it is vital to speak to a healthcare provider if you have heartburn more than twice a week. Chronic heartburn may require medication, surgery or other procedures to prevent the acid from moving up the esophagus. 

Heartburn FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about heartburn:

Is heartburn a sign of a heart attack?

No, although the sensation of heartburn is near the heart. While some people might be confused if it is heartburn or a heart attack, the symptoms are different. Heartburn typically feels like burning, whereas a heart attack feels like pressure or pain around the heart.

What happens if heartburn is not treated?

Untreated heartburn causes inflammation in the esophagus, which can lead to permanent damage and cancer. 

Is heartburn a symptom of pregnancy?

Pregnancy can trigger heartburn due to the pressure on the esophagus and other hormonal changes.

Visit an urgent care for any heartburn treatment

If you are experiencing heartburn or other uncomfortable digestive concerns, our caring providers are here to help. We can evaluate and treat your symptoms at any of our conveniently located centers. We also partner with many other specialists if long-term evaluation is needed. 

All of our centers provide lab tests, telemedicine and a wide variety of nonemergency treatments for the whole family. Just walk in, save your spot online or schedule a virtual visit at one of our conveniently located centers


  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9617-heartburn-overview
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heartburn/symptoms-causes/syc-20373223
  3. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/gerd-diet-foods-that-help-with-acid-reflux-heartburn
  4. https://magazine.medlineplus.gov/article/acid-reflux-heartburn-and-gerd-whats-the-difference
  5. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17019-acid-reflux-gerd
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542209/
  7. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22215-intestinal-metaplasia