Endless heartburn a silent killer


GERD can be triggered by skipping meals due to busy schedules. [Courtesy]

Heartburn is mostly associated with gas and acidity in the stomach, but health experts now warn that it could be as serious as degenerating into throat cancer. Watch out for acid-sore throat, chocking, hoarse voice, sensitivity of molar teeth, continuous throat clearing and coughing at night.

Also known as Gastro esophageal Reflux disease (GERD), heartburn is a disease in which stomach acid or bile irritates the food pipe lining. It occurs when contents in the stomach backflows to the throat and should be a cause for concern when it happens more than twice a week.

GERD can be triggered by skipping meals due to busy schedules besides consumption of unhealthy diets which expose many to acidity.

It is not considered life-threatening, but specialists in the Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) like Dr Maina Macharia of the Kerugoya Hospital in Kirinyaga County, consider it a silent killer.

Maina says the hospital receives about 35 new patients weekly translating to five a day most of whom report a cough and burning sensation of the throat caused by GERD.

Dr Macharia explains that relaxing after meals through lying down can cause the back flow as the stomach lining loosens and the contents which are “Flaccid can choke or make one cough but since they contain acids like bile, pancreatic juice and thick mucus “slime” is what causes the heartburn when it backflows.” 

Dr Macharia adds that the acid sometimes pours in the mouth affecting oral cavity that later causes molar teeth erosion besides the backflow also affecting the food pipe by altering the alkaline environment.   

Heartburn erodes the food pipe which creates a thick inner layer when healing but this narrows the stomach which is why some people suddenly start eating food for hours due to feeling like something is hanging in the throat causing discomfort.

Dr Macharia explains that most patients who experience difficulties in swallowing and recurring clearing of the throat are diagnosed with early-stage cancer of the esophagus -now a leading killer in Kenya - which has been linked to GERD. 

Other effects include change in voice due to loss of voice box after pancreatic juices weaken the voice chords via persistent throat clearing, yet “many do not know that acidity is a disease,” says Dr Macharia who also discourages against self-medication considering “it is manageable and can be treated early if detected.”

He also warns general practitioners against prescribing drugs before referring patients to the ENT department as “we have seen patients come to us after years of passing through general practitioners who prescribe drugs that end up causing more harm.”

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