April 05, 2021 6 min read

Nearly everyone has experienced heartburn at some point or another. It’s a very common condition, characterized by an uncomfortable burning sensation in the chest area. If that feeling sounds familiar to you, you’re far from alone.

In fact, according to the American College of Gastroenterology, more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. If you’re one of these 60 million people, then you may be wondering: how long does heartburn usually last?

The truth is that the amount of time it takes for an episode of heartburn to subside varies from person to person. In some cases, the symptoms of heartburn may last for minutes, in other cases they may persist for hours. Even after the initial heartburn episode ends, symptoms can return several hours later in the event that you bend over or lie down.

If the cause of your heartburn stems from eating a particularly spicy or acidic meal, then the symptoms will typically die down once the food has been digested. Depending on your metabolism, it can take two to five hours for food to empty from your stomach and enter your small intestine, and 24 to 72 hours for it to fully move through your digestive tract.

However, there are steps you can take to minimize the frequency of heartburn or even stop it from occurring entirely. If you’re interested in learning more about the symptoms of heartburn, what causes it, and how to prevent it, read through this article. You can also click on any of the below links to skip to a particular section:

Symptoms of Heartburn and GERD

According to a University of Utah article, heartburn is caused by acid from the stomach that refluxes up into the esophagus, irritating the esophageal lining.

While the most prominent symptom of heartburn is the burning sensation that one feels in the chest or throat, other distinct symptoms often accompany the condition. Some of the symptoms of heartburn may include:

  • Burning sensation in chest or throat
  • Sour or bitter taste in mouth
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Difficulty swallowing

If you experience heartburn from time to time, it’s likely nothing to worry too much about. It’s also not unusual — some studies have suggested that more than 15 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms on a daily basis. In general, occasional heartburn can be dealt with using at-home treatments.

15 million Americans suffer from GERD daily.

On the other hand, if you experience heartburn several times a week, it may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as non-erosive reflux disease (NERD) or gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD). Both conditions are relatively common digestive disorders but, out of the two, GERD is the more serious condition. GERD is characterized by chronic acid reflux, where the stomach’s acidic contents seep into the esophagus. Over time, stomach acid can damage your esophageal lining and potentially lead to other issues like ulcers and Barrett’s esophagus.

Heartburn Prevention and Treatment

Most of the time, heartburn isn’t something you need to worry about. Fortunately, you won’t have to break the bank for expensive or invasive medical treatment. In many cases, heartburn can be treated at home by taking medication. Some over-the-counter medications that may be able to provide relief from heartburn symptoms include:

  • Antacids
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
  • H2 receptor antagonists

Besides medication, there are a number of other ways you can treat heartburn and GERD. Making some simple lifestyle changes can reduce the likelihood that you experience heartburn. For example, things like maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tight-fitting clothing, and steering clear of spicy and acidic foods can potentially reduce the frequency and intensity of your heartburn. You might also try out the following methods to minimize heartburn symptoms:

Methods to minimize heartburn symptoms graphic

  • Wait at least three hours after eating before going to bed. This allows time for the food in your stomach to settle and become digested. Lying down right after a meal, when your stomach is still rich with gastric juices, makes you more vulnerable to bouts of nighttime acid reflux and heartburn.
  • Sleep on an incline at night. Keeping your upper body elevated while you sleep can prevent nighttime acid reflux and heartburn. When you sleep on an incline, gravity is able to push down any stomach acid that may seep into your esophagus. Specialized pillows like MedCline’s Reflux Relief System can help you sleep comfortably through the night without being woken up or irritated by acid reflux and heartburn.
  • Quit smoking and stop using tobacco products. There are two main reasons why tobacco use puts you at risk for heartburn and acid reflux. First, smoking relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), or the ring of muscle that prevents stomach acid from flowing back into your esophagus. Second, smoking can lower the amount of saliva you produce, and saliva helps to protect your esophageal lining against acidic substances.

When to Seek Medical Attention

While mild heartburn on occasion is perfectly normal, it can be problematic if it begins to occur on a regular basis or if symptoms become more severe. If you experience heartburn more than twice a week, or if it’s beginning to negatively affect your day-to-day life, then it may be time to seek out professional help.

Doctor speaking to patient.

Contact a doctor if you’ve been experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe pain related to heartburn
  • Extreme stomach pain
  • Difficulty swallowing food or pills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A chronic cough
  • Persistent sensation of a lump in your throat
  • Chronic hoarseness or wheezing
  • Chest pain accompanied by pain in the neck, jaw, arms, or legs
  • Consistent diarrhea or bloody bowel movements

Additionally, if your heartburn symptoms persist despite using over-the-counter (OTC) medication for two weeks or longer, then it may be a good idea to seek out other forms of medical treatment. If you’ve been suffering from severe symptoms and OTC heartburn and acid reflux medications are not working, then you may need prescription medication to quell your symptoms.

Graphic recommending to seek professional medical advice if you experience heartburn more than twice a week.

Visiting a medical professional may also be a good idea because the heartburn symptoms you’re experiencing could be a sign of a more serious condition. A doctor will be able to conduct a physical exam and run tests to see if you have any underlying conditions that are causing chronic heartburn. They’ll also be able to determine whether you suffer from a digestive disorder such as GERD, and help you understand the risk factors for NERD vs.GERD. So schedule an appointment with your doctor to get checked out and discuss potential treatment options going forward.

Keep in mind, too, that the symptoms of severe heartburn include intense pain and discomfort, and can sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack. Heart attacks can be life-threatening and require immediate medical treatment, so, if you suspect that you’re having one, call 911 as soon as possible. To help you understand the difference between heart attack and heartburn symptoms, here’s a list of some common heart attack symptoms to watch out for:

  • A tightness, pressure, or sharp pain in the center or left side of the chest
  • Pain that spreads to the jaw, neck, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness of sudden dizziness

Takeaways

Heartburn is a very common condition that almost everyone deals with from time to time. Some groups, such as smokers, pregnant women, and those who are overweight, have a higher risk of experiencing it on a regular basis. However, anyone can be affected by it.

The good news is that, most of the time, mild heartburn is nothing to worry about and symptoms generally pass after a few hours, or once the food that triggered the heartburn episode has been digested. Heartburn can usually be effectively treated with OTC medication or through simple lifestyle changes — for instance, you might try sleeping with MedCline’s Reflux Relief System, which is designed to keep your upper body at an incline through the night, thereby minimizing symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn. 

Lastly, if you’re unable to find relief through at-home treatment and OTC medications, then it’s probably a good idea to visit your doctor. They’ll be able to determine whether your heartburn is a symptom of a more serious condition and advise you on treatment options.

If you’re dealing with, or have ever dealt with, chronic heartburn, then you know it can be taxing. While it may start out as just an inconvenience, it can start to interfere with your day-to-day life and prevent you from doing the activities you want to do. Take action today, so you can start living your life without being irritated by chronic heartburn.

 

References:

  1. “Acid Reflux.” American College of Gastroenterology, gi.org/topics/acid-reflux/.
  2. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” Loyola Medicine, Loyola University Medical Center, loyolamedicine.org/digestive-health/gerd.
  3. “Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 Aug. 2020, www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm.
  4. “Heartburn.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 Apr. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heartburn/symptoms-causes/syc-20373223.
  5. “Heartburn: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment.” Cleveland Clinic, 1 Jan. 2020, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9617-heartburn-overview.
  6. “When Is Heartburn Considered Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?” University of Utah Health, University of Utah, 26 June 2019, healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2019/06/heartburn.php.