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Chronic Heartburn: Watch Out for Severe Complications!

Rushing/skipping meals, business get-togethers and entertaining are commonplace for Hong Kongers. Many of them therefore often experience discomfort in their stomachs such as a foreign body sensation and the backflow of stomach acid. In severe cases, patients often feel a burning sensation in their chest or stomach. These are the symptoms of acid reflux, commonly called heartburn.

Causes and symptoms of heartburn

There is a group of muscles at the end of the oesophagus called the lower oesophageal sphincter. If it weakens or relaxes, stomach acid may flow back to the oesophagus and constantly irritates its lining, causing a burning sensation in the stomach and chest, hence the feeling of heartburn. This usually occurs in people with prolonged consumption of foods that are difficult to digest, being overweight or underweight which exerts too much pressure on the abdomen, and with kyphosis or heavy stress. If you often lie down or do intense exercise after a meal immediately, it increases the risk of acid reflux.

If you experience the following symptoms, you may be suffering from heartburn:

  • Burning sensation in the stomach: a burning sensation in the chest after a meal, and when you lie down, bend over, or exert force.

  • Regurgitation: stomach acid (and sometimes undigested food) will rise back up to the oesophagus and into the mouth, leading to a burning sensation in the throat and a sour taste in the mouth.

  • Excess saliva and a sour taste: when the mouth produces too much saliva which mixes with the stomach acid in the throat, it causes a sour taste.

  • Hiccups: the excess gas in the stomach expelled from the mouth.

  • Difficulty or pain in swallowing 

  • Sore throat and hoarseness

  • Chronic coughing

  • Chest pain

  • Non-allergic asthma

  • Dental erosion by stomach acid

Chronic heartburn can lead to severe complications

Prolonged acid reflux may cause different kinds of complications. Patients may first experience pain behind the chest bone and at the back, interfering with daily activities; then suffer from difficulty swallowing, hence malnutrition and weight loss. On the other hand, the complications of heartburn include bleeding triggered by the erosion of the oesophageal mucosa, oesophageal stricture and perforation, airway inflammation and chronic corditis, and in severe cases, bronchitis, pneumonia and even oesophageal cancer.

Patients should therefore treat heartburn as early as possible. They should adjust their diets, such as quitting alcohol and irritating drinks (e.g., coke, coffee, tea, etc) and avoiding foods that are hard to digest (e.g., glutinous rice, dairy products and fermented foods) and high-fat foods. They should eat three meals regularly, and stand or go for a walk after a meal instead of lying down or doing intense exercise. Patients that are overweight should do more exercises and manage their body weight to alleviate the symptoms.

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