Symptoms and Signs of Heartburn (GERD)

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 11/5/2021

Doctor's Notes on Heartburn (GERD)

Heartburn is an uncomfortable feeling of burning, heat, or warmth in the chest and is sometimes termed acid indigestion. Signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Burning feeling in chest (often after eating)
  • Chest pain (especially after eating, bending over, or lying down)
  • Burning in throat
  • Hot and acidic fluid at the back of the throat (sometimes including a sour and/or salty taste)
  • Difficulty swallowing (due to scar formation from repeated heartburn attacks)
  • Feeling of food stuck in the throat or chest

The cause of heartburn is the upward or reverse movement (reflux) of stomach acid into the esophagus. The esophagus is not protected from acid, unlike the stomach. There are many risk factors and/or causes of heartburn including

Heartburn pain/discomfort may mimic the chest pain that can occur with a heart attack. If you are not sure if the discomfort/pain in the chest is due to heartburn, call 911. If the heartburn is associated with other symptoms and signs like shortness of breath, weakness, pale skin, sweating, nausea/vomiting, and is not like previous heartburn symptoms, call 911.

What Is the Treatment for Heartburn?

Two major treatments of heartburn are medicines and lifestyle changes:

  • Medicines (over the counter)
    • Antacids: quickly neutralize stomach acid for a short time
    • H-2 receptor antagonists: Reduce stomach acid for longer time intervals.
    • Proton pump inhibitors: Reduce stomach acid production.
  • Lifestyle changes
    • Avoid foods that trigger heartburn (make a list).
    • Avoid eating close to bedtime.
    • Avoid eating large food servings.
    • Avoid lying down (about 3 hours) after a meal.
    • Avoid smoking and alcohol.
    • Avoid clothing that is tight around your waist.
    • Reach and stay a healthy weight.

If your heartburn remains after you try the above, contact your doctor.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.