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Persistent heartburn should be a cause for concern

Persistent heartburn can be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes the stomach acid and digestive enzymes to leak backwards into the oesophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach).

Acid reflux is common and most people experience it at some point of their lives. In Kenya, though no studies have been done on exact figures, about  one to two in every ten people suffer from the acid reflux. Over 50 per cent will have reflux symptoms over a 12 month period. The condition becomes a problem when it persists and affects ones daily activities. Long-standing severe GERD causes changes in the cells within the lining of the oesophagus, which can become either pre-cancerous, or cancerous. The condition is referred to as ‘Barrett’s Oesophagus’ and it occurs in about ten per cent of people with GERD.

Most patients with GERD have either non-erosive reflux disease (NERD) or erosive oesophagitis. If you have ongoing reflux, but experience little to no relief from acid blocking medications, you may have what is known as non-erosive reflux disease or NERD, which is a sub-category of GERD.

Treatment for most people with GERD includes lifestyle changes and medication. There are some specific foods people suffering from GERD should avoid because they promote reflux. These foods include peppermint, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, alcohol, fatty foods, and spicy or acid-containing foods.

. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is the leading cause of cancer of the esophagus, especially in the West. In Western populations, GERD affects approximately ten to 20 per cent of the population. The prevalence rate is also tightly linked to age and adults over 50 years are the most commonly affected.

Other risk factors include obesity, smoking, pregnancy and hiatal hernia.

By Dr Allan C. Rajula, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Senior Instructor in the Department of Medicine at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.

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