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Beyond the Burn: Understanding GERD, Acid Reflux and Heartburn Symptoms

What Does Heartburn Feel Like?

Is the pain or discomfort you have been feeling, heartburn? If you are experiencing a burning in or behind your chest there’s a chance it could be.

“Heartburn, also known as pyrosis, is an uncomfortable burning sensation in the retrosternal area, which is the area located behind the breastbone in the chest,” says Victor Wong, PharmD, a pharmacist in the Greater Toronto Area and teaching associate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Pharmacy.

“Often a patient may describe it as, ‘a burning feeling rising from the stomach or lower chest which may rise up toward the throat.’”

“The pain may be worse when lying or bending down and occurs usually after eating, during periods of emotional stress, or at night, causing the individual to wake up,” says Wong.

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Hearburn Symptoms Infographic

How Long Does Heartburn Last?

It depends. The pain can last anywhere from minutes to hours. You might find that the pain sometimes stops spontaneously and other times you may need to take heartburn medication.

Are there any additional symptoms heartburn sufferers may also experience?

If you have heartburn, there are other symptoms you may be experiencing related to the backflow of stomach acid to the esophagus – otherwise known as acid reflux. Some of the more common symptoms people experience with heartburn can include26:

  • Burning Sensation
  • Burping
  • Regurgitation of small amounts of undigested food or stomach acid
  • Bloating
  • Hiccups

If you are experiencing any of these more serious symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Chronic Heartburn

If you are suffering from heartburn more frequently, it is possible that you are experiencing Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD. This can be more severe than a case of heartburn and is a result of chronic acid reflux that has damaged your esophagus. GERD requires effective medication for that condition.27 Speak to your doctor if you suspect that you have GERD.

Symptoms associated with GERD can include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Persistent Sore Throat
  • Lump in Throat
  • Hoarseness or laryngitis
  • Dysphagia (painful swallowing)
  • Asthma-like symptoms (e.g. wheezing)

What to do if you are Experiencing Chronic Heartburn

It’s normal to get heartburn from time to time. If you are suffering heartburn as frequently as three times or more per week and the symptoms last for a long time, you should talk to your doctor28. Also speak to your doctor if symptoms persist despite the use of over-the-counter medications, you have difficulty swallowing, persistent nausea or vomiting, have weight loss because of poor appetite or difficulty eating.

If left untreated, chronic heartburn can cause permanent damage to your esophagus, so be sure to consult with your medical professional if you are experiencing any of these symptoms of chronic heartburn29.

Heartburn or Heart Attack?

If you are concerned that your chest pains are not heartburn, but a heart attack, there are ways of distinguishing between the two. However, it may be difficult to know for certain.

“The pain may also resemble angina pectoris (i.e. chest pain or discomfort from coronary heart disease), and is typically described as squeezing or burning, located substernally (i.e. located below or behind the sternum or breastbone).

“Often, medical tests are required to distinguish the difference. However, symptoms also associated with heartburn may be pain after eating or lying down, pain starting in the abdomen before moving up to the chest, a sour taste in the mouth, and regurgitation of stomach acid,” says Wong.

If you are having a heart attack you may feel discomfort in the center or left side of the chest (it might feel like pressure, squeezing, or pain)30. You might also feel pain or discomfort in your arms, back, shoulder, neck, jaw or above the belly button. You may experience chest pain and shortness of breath31.

You should immediately consult medical help (call 911) if you are experiencing pain behind the breastbone that’s not burning pain but feels more like tightness in the chest,32 or if you are not sure whether you are experiencing heartburn or a heart attack.

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