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While heartburn isn’t a medical condition, it can be a symptom of one.

Nearly all of us experience it from time to time after eating some of our favorite foods — that uncomfortable feeling in our throat or chest known as heartburn.

“For some people, acidic foods cause heartburn. For others, fatty foods can be a trigger,” says Amit Mehta, MD, family medicine physician at Geisinger.

No matter what’s causing it, you might be wondering if it’s time to call the doctor. First, let’s look more at the causes and conditions heartburn could be signaling.

Causes of heartburn

Lasting anywhere from a few minutes to hours, heartburn is often described as a sour or bitter taste in the back of the throat. It’s commonly treated with over-the-counter antacids or acid blockers.

Occasional heartburn will go away on its own if you avoid certain foods that cause your heartburn, including foods that are fried, greasy, spicy or high in fat. “Heartburn can also be caused by eating too fast,” says Dr. Mehta. “You may also experience it if you lie down or bend over too soon after eating.”

While you can often easily treat heartburn on its own, keep in mind that it can be a sign of certain medical conditions, including:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Acid reflux
  • Pregnancy
  • H-pylori bacterial infection

Acid reflux and GERD

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. Like heartburn, it can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours and is easily treated with over-the-counter antacids or acid blockers.

GERD is acid reflux caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which works like a trapdoor. When your stomach is empty, the LES opens and lets food in. Once your stomach is full, it closes to stop acid and bile from leaving the stomach.

GERD can cause more serious health conditions, including esophagitis, Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. “That’s why it’s so important to reach out to your doctor if you’re suffering from chronic heartburn,” says Dr. Mehta.


During the second and third trimester, heartburn is a common symptom for pregnant people. “As your baby grows, your digestive system is impacted, which can lead to heartburn,” says Dr. Mehta. “Pregnancy hormones also cause heartburn.”

You can minimize heartburn symptoms while pregnant by eating smaller meals and drinking water between meals. “It’s also a good idea to avoid fried, spicy and rich foods to manage heartburn while pregnant,” Dr. Mehta adds. And avoid lying down within 2 hours of eating.

When to see a doctor about heartburn

If you get heartburn often or if it’s severe, reach out to your doctor to rule out any medical conditions.

“Your doctor may have you do a series of tests to diagnose the cause of your heartburn,” says Dr. Mehta. One common diagnostic procedure is an endoscopy. For this, your doctor will use an endoscope — a long, thin tube with a camera on the end — to get a clear view of your digestive tract. A test to confirm H-pylori bacterial infection can also be done at the same time.

Your doctor may also have you answer a questionnaire to rule out GERD, or prescribe a 48-hour Bravo™ esophageal pH test.

“During this minimally invasive test, your doctor uses an endoscope to attach a small capsule to your esophagus,” says Dr. Mehta. This will measure pH levels in your throat to determine how much acid is backing up into your esophagus and how often.

The good news? Heartburn doesn’t have to be a daily occurrence. “By reaching out and having a few easy tests done, your doctor can find the best treatment for you, so you can find relief from heartburn,” says Dr. Mehta.

Next steps: 

Learn about heartburn care at Geisinger
Explore GERD treatment options
Get your free guide to gut health

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