Symptoms of Gastroesophageal Reflux vs. Heartburn

For example, what does heartburn feel like?

Photo by Tom Le Goff (Getty Images)
Photo by Tom Le Goff (Getty Images)

Asking "what does heartburn feel like?" seems like a simple enough question. Usually, heartburn is thought to feel like some level of discomfort in the chest area. While that can be one of the symptoms of heartburn, it's typically not the only one. Also, some people who experience heartburn won't ever have any discomfort in their chests.

Heartburn is not the same for everyone who experiences it. What I feel when I have an episode of heartburn may not be in the same area of the body, or of the same intensity, as what you feel.

For this reason, I will list some of the possible ways heartburn can make you feel.

A burning feeling in the throat
This burning sensation, which is usually felt high up in the neck (though it can occur lower), may worsen with swallowing. When stomach contents reflux up into the throat, this can cause irritation and burning.

Sour or bitter taste in the mouth
This sour or bitter taste can occur when stomach contents reflux up into the esophagus and may reach the back of the throat.

Difficulty swallowing
Trouble with swallowing (dysphagia) can occur when food does not pass normally from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach. There may be a sensation of food sticking in the throat, chest pressure or "burning" after eating, or a feeling of choking. Difficulty swallowing could be a sign of various conditions, including erosive esophagitis and esophageal cancer, and should always be evaluated by a physician.

Chronic coughing
In some studies, GERD accounted for almost half of cases of chronic cough in nonsmoking patients. If stomach acids reflux back into the esophagus and are aspirated, coughing can occur.

Wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms
There are studies that suggest a significant link between GERD and asthma.

The results of these studies show that up to 60% of people with asthma also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), compared with 10% of the general population. GERD can affect asthma when stomach acid leaks back into the esophagus and is aspirated into the airways and lungs, which can make breathing difficult and cause the patient to wheeze and cough.

A burning sensation or pain in the chest
This is the symptom most often thought of in association with heartburn. This burning sensation usually starts behind the breastbone (the sternum), and will sometimes travel up to the throat. It's usually first noticed shortly after eating.

How can you tell if your chest pain is caused by heartburn or a heart attack? Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish the two, so if there is any confusion as to whether you are suffering from a bout of heartburn or are having a heart attack, you need to seek immediate medical attention.

Symptoms more typical of the chest pain caused by heartburn include:

  • A burning sensation or pain that occurs just below the breastbone
  • This pain rarely radiates to the shoulders, neck, or arms, though it does occur on occasion
  • This pain usually comes after meals, or when lying down soon after eating
  • This chest pain usually responds quickly to antacids
  • The pain is rarely accompanied by a cold sweat

Symptoms more typical of a heart attack include:

  • The feeling of fullness, tightness, pressure, or pain in the center of the chest
  • There may be a squeezing sensation as if something was tightening around the chest
  • Dizziness
  • Pain may spread to the shoulders, neck, jaw or arms
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Weakness

Again, if there is any confusion about whether your symptoms are related to heartburn or are the warning signs of a heart attack, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Heartburn is not a disorder by itself. It is, however, a symptom of another digestive disorder. For example, heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).


Carol Ann Rinzler; Ken DeVault, MD, First. Heartburn & Reflux For Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc, 2004. 163-176. Print.

"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).

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