A person may get heartburn all of a sudden as a result of eating certain foods, some eating patterns, drinking alcohol, and smoking. Stress, anxiety, certain medications, and some medical conditions can also cause it.

Heartburn is a common condition that causes a burning sensation in the chest and throat. A person may also experience:

  • a burning sensation in the middle of the chest
  • pain that feels like burning indigestion
  • a foul, acidic taste in the mouth
  • difficulty swallowing
  • coughing or hoarseness
  • pain that worsens when bending over or lying down

This article will discuss why a person may suddenly develop heartburn despite not experiencing it before.

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The United Kingdom’s National Health Service notes that many people develop heartburn from time to time, and the cause is not always obvious.

Experiencing heartburn for the first time is usually not a cause for concern.

However, if someone without a history of heartburn starts to experience it frequently or severely, they should speak with a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions and to determine the appropriate treatment.

People should contact a doctor if they experience severe and persistent symptoms that cannot be relieved by using over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) notes that some foods and drinks can bring on symptoms of heartburn.

Examples of foods that may cause heartburn include:

These types of foods can irritate the lining of the esophagus, which can lead to heartburn.

Learn more about foods that cause heartburn.

Heartburn can develop as a result of:

  • eating a large meal
  • eating a meal late at night
  • eating a meal that is calorie dense
  • lying down too soon after eating
  • eating too quickly

According to research from 2019, eating large or calorie dense meals can cause gastric distention, or the enlargement of the stomach.

It can also cause the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to relax. This can cause stomach acid to travel up to the esophagus, leading to heartburn. The LES is the muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach.

Eating a meal late at night can increase the production of stomach acid.

Lying down within 3 hours of eating can also cause stomach acid to travel up the esophagus.

When a person eats quickly, they tend to swallow air, which can contribute to the development of gas and bloating. Additionally, eating too fast can cause a person to overeat, leading to increased pressure on the LES, resulting in acid reflux.

The American Psychological Association notes that stress can lead to heartburn. This is because stress may cause a person to eat more or less than usual, or increase their use of tobacco or alcohol.

It can also make it more challenging to swallow foods or cause a person to swallow more air than usual. This causes bloating, gas, and burping.

Additionally, people may turn to comfort foods high in fat, sugar, or salt when stressed, which can also bring on heartburn.

The authors of a 2018 cross-sectional study suggest that anxiety can cause heartburn due to the following reasons:

  • Anxiety can reduce the pressure on the LES.
  • Anxiety can cause muscle tension, increasing pressure around the stomach, and pushing the acid upward.
  • Anxiety can increase the production of stomach acid.

Learn more about the relationship between acid reflux and anxiety.

Certain medical conditions can cause heartburn. These include:

If someone develops one of these conditions, they may experience heartburn for the first time.

Heartburn is common during pregnancy, with an incidence of 17–45% in pregnant women.

During pregnancy, the pregnancy hormone called progesterone relaxes the LES. This allows food and acid to travel up to the esophagus.

As the pregnancy progresses, a person may begin to experience heartburn more often. The uterus begins to push against the stomach, also pushing the contents of the stomach upward.

Learn more about heartburn during pregnancy.

A person can treat mild, occasional heartburn with lifestyle modifications and OTC medications, while more severe or frequent symptoms may require prescription medications or surgery.

Some treatments for heartburn include:

  • Lifestyle modifications: People should aim to:
    • avoid dietary triggers
    • eat smaller, more frequent meals
    • avoid lying down immediately after a meal
    • elevate the head of the bed can help reduce the frequency and severity of heartburn
    • stop smoking, if they smoke
    • achieve and maintain a moderate body mass index
  • OTC medications: People can take antacids to neutralize stomach acid to provide immediate relief. H2 receptor blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can reduce stomach acid production and provide longer-lasting relief.
  • Prescription medications: For more severe or frequent heartburn, a doctor may prescribe stronger medications, such as higher dose PPIs.
  • Surgery: Surgery may be an option for people who do not respond to medications.

A person may mistake heartburn for the following conditions:

  • angina, which is chest pain that results from reduced blood flow to the heart
  • gallstones, which can cause pain in the upper abdomen or back
  • pancreatitis, which refers to the inflammation of the pancreas, causing pain and discomfort in the upper abdomen
  • peptic ulcer, which are open sores in the lining of the stomach, causing a burning pain in the upper abdomen
  • hiatal hernia, which is when part of the stomach protrudes into the chest cavity through the diaphragm, which can cause heartburn-like symptoms
  • anxiety and stress, which can cause physical symptoms including chest pain and tightness in the chest

People should contact a doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • severe or persistent chest pain or discomfort
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • pain that radiates to your arm, neck, or jaw
  • sweating or nausea accompanying chest pain
  • vomiting blood or passing black, tarry stools
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • unintentional weight loss
  • symptoms that do not improve with OTC medications
  • recurrent heartburn or acid reflux

These symptoms may be signs of a more serious condition, such as a heart attack, esophageal injury, or stomach ulcer.

It is essential to seek prompt medical attention if someone experiences any of these symptoms to receive appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

While occasional and mild heartburn is usually not a cause for concern, severe chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, or pain that radiates to the arm or jaw may indicate a heart attack, requiring immediate medical attention.

A person without a history of heartburn may start experiencing it due to changes in diet or lifestyle, certain medications, medical conditions, or stress and anxiety.

If the symptoms are frequent or severe, people should contact a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions and determine the appropriate treatment.