What is Heartburn?

What is Heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest, usually behind the breastbone. It occurs when stomach acid or bile flows into the esophagus, the tube between the stomach and the throat, causing discomfort in the stomach lining.

Heartburn can be a symptom of various conditions, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and acid reflux. Occasional heartburn is common and often has no cause for concern. But chronic or frequent heartburn can be a sign of a more serious condition and require medical treatment.

Heartburn vs. heart attack

Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. However, heartburn and a heart attack both feature chest pains as a symptom. For some people, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Heartburn discomfort usually starts after eating, spreading from the upper belly and to the center of the chest.

Heart attack symptoms include an unpleasant pressure, squeezing, or a “fullness” sensation in the left side or center of the chest, often accompanied by pain in the arm or jaw or breathing difficulties.

If you are experiencing persistent chest pain, and are unsure if it’s heartburn or a heart attack, call 911 and go to the emergency room. Better to be safe than sorry.

Signs & Symptoms of Heartburn


Heartburn symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Symptoms typically include:

  • A burning feeling in the chest behind the sternum
  • A burning sensation or pressure in the upper abdomen
  • An acidic or bitter taste in the mouth
  • Burning in the throat
  • Pain that begins after eating or at night
  • Pain that increases when bending over or lying down
  • Difficulty swallowing

If you or your child have heartburn symptoms more than once a week or develop persistent nausea and weight loss due to loss of appetite, consult your primary care doctor or your child’s pediatrician. A primary care doctor can determine if you need to be seen by a specialist.

Consistent and severe chest pain or pressure could be a sign of a heart attack. Seek emergency care immediately.

Heartburn and pregnancy

Heartburn in pregnancy is very common. Heartburn during pregnancy can be caused by hormonal changes and the growing baby pressing on your stomach.

Avoiding greasy, spicy, and fatty foods or large meals can help reduce the chances of heartburn for pregnant women.

What Causes Heartburn?


Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. It can start due to an issue in the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the muscular valve where the esophagus meets the stomach, located slightly below and to the left of the ribcage.

The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a ring of muscle fibers that prevents food from moving back up the esophagus. The ring opens when you swallow, but stomach contents can leak back to the esophagus if it doesn’t close properly.  

Heartburn causes can stem from dietary choices. Certain foods can trigger heartburn, including:

  • Fatty or fried foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Citrus products
  • Onion and garlic
  • Tomato products, including ketchup
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Carbonated or caffeinated beverages
  • Alcohol



There are preventive actions you can take to avoid or reduce heartburn. Staying away from certain foods (listed above) is one way, as well as altering other diet and lifestyle factors.

Some ways to prevent heartburn include:

  • Avoid food high in fats and oils
  • Try eating smaller meals spread throughout the day, instead of three large ones
  • Aim for a healthy amount of sleep. A lack of it can cause heartburn
  • Manage your stress
  • Certain medications can cause heartburn. Your doctor can suggest alternatives
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can relax the LES and increase stomach acid.
  • Avoid eating too close to bedtime or late at night
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Heartburn Care

Occasional heartburn is usually not serious, but the burning pain could be linked to a condition that requires medical attention. NewYork-Presbyterian is home to top-notch primary care doctors that can evaluate your heartburn symptoms and offer treatment options.

In addition to quality primary care, NewYork-Presbyterian accepts most insurances and offers same-day appointments for critical needs, with off-peak and weekend timeslot options. We provide a user-friendly patient portal and referrals to our world-renowned specialists.

If you have questions or concerns about your heartburn symptoms, schedule an appointment or a video visit with NewYork-Presbyterian or at one of our medical group locations.