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How Do I Know If I Have Heartburn?

Here’s how—and why—heartburn happens.

Frequent heartburn - defined as occurring two or more days a week – is a burning discomfort in the chest or throat that occurs when harsh stomach acid comes into contact with the delicate lining of the esophagus, irritating it.

Heartburn affects different people in different ways. But the symptoms of heartburn are generally described as:

  • A burning pain that begins in the chest or at the breastbone and moves up toward the throat

  • A feeling that food is coming back into the mouth

  • An acidic or bitter taste at the back of the throat

  • An increase in severity of pain when you’re lying down or bending over

  • Pain that usually comes after meals

Important note: There are some similarities between heartburn and heart attack symptoms. If you have any chest pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or any warning signs of a heart attack (for example, pain spreading to arms, neck or shoulders with shortness of breath; sweating; light-headedness), seek immediate medical attention.

What causes heartburn?

Your stomach produces juices to help your body break down food. These juices contain hydrochloric acid. While your stomach is naturally protected from this potent acid, your esophagus is not. Heartburn’s fiery sensation can occur when this stomach acid refluxes—or flows backward—into the esophagus.

Normally, a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) keeps stomach acid in the stomach and out of the esophagus. When functioning properly, the LES acts as a door, allowing food to go down into the stomach but not for stomach acids to come back up. If the LES is “relaxing”—or failing to function properly—reflux and heartburn can occur.

Why do you get heartburn?

There may be many reasons why you get heartburn—some of which you can control and some of which you cannot. Dietary and lifestyle habits can increase your risk of developing heartburn, as can certain medications. Individually or in combination, these factors can cause the LES to relax, increase the amount of acid produced in the stomach, raise stomach pressure and/or make the esophagus more sensitive to acid.

Sound complicated? It can be—but a thoughtful review of your diet, lifestyle and medication regimen can help you get to the bottom of the problem. Follow the links below to learn about common factors that contribute to heartburn.

  • What and how much you eat

    Spicy and greasy foods are common culprits. So are coffee, citrus juices and alcoholic beverages. Eating too much and too quickly are heartburn factors, as is being overweight.

  • Smoking

    Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes inhibits saliva, one of the body’s natural protective barriers against damage to the esophagus. Smoking may also weaken the LES and stimulate acid production.

Note: Talk to your healthcare professional if you think your medications may be contributing to your heartburn. Ask about alternatives, but never stop taking any prescription medication before checking with your doctor.