Health and Lifestyle: Food habits can trigger reflux, `gastric asthma'

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SPICY SNACKS: They are best if eaten in moderation. PHOTO: M. VEDHAN
SPICY SNACKS: They are best if eaten in moderation. PHOTO: M. VEDHAN

R. Sujatha

Signs: bouts of cough, hoarse voice, throat irritation, heartburn

  • Lie down with head in an elevated position
  • Go easy on fizzy (carbonated) drinks, large, high-fat meals
  • Go to bed two hours after dinner

    CHENNAI: R. Lakshmi Priya, 28, suffers from cough bouts during winters. This time, the coughing was accompanied by nausea. Her doctor put her on medication and advised her to avoid oily, spicy food.

    Lakshmi Priya is a vocalist who teaches music in a city school. "I went to the doctor when my cough became persistent. I also vomited every time I coughed. The doctor said these are early symptoms of gastric asthma, due to pollution. He told me to avoid oily, spicy food and cold water."

    "I like spicy food and eat chips every week. He has put me on medication. Now I am 80 per cent normal."

    Quite a number of people suffer from this type of asthma, which doctors say is a direct result of reflux. When the liquids in the stomach pass up the oesophagus (food pipe) it is called reflux. These liquids, usually highly acidic, can irritate and inflame the food pipe and the airways of the lung, if they get into the windpipe. This irritation can trigger an asthma attack.

    Range of symptoms

    Reflux symptoms include feeling generally bloated all day, feeling full after eating a small meal, food from the stomach coming up to the throat when bending over after a full meal, feeling nauseous and burping bouts.

    People who consume large oily meals, alcohol, and also smoke may even feel their heart "leap into their throat." Some people experience pain or burning sensation in the upper abdomen and lower chest, sometimes radiating to the back (heartburn), doctors explain.

    Allergy specialist R. Narasimhan says asthma-like symptoms that occur in gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are more common in children and adults above 50 years.

    "Seventy per cent of asthmatics have it when compared to the general population. Patients with acid reflux also suffer from retro-sternal chest pain or burning sensation that is a marker in heart disorders." Inappropriately treated asthma in children could also lead to reflux.

    Some people may present other symptoms such as recurrent bouts of cough, hoarse voice, throat irritation and heartburn. The cough can be particularly troublesome in the night. Occasionally these patients can experience bad breath due to dental erosions and recurrent respiratory infections because of acid reflux.

    Asthma specialist R. Sridharan says, "A third of my patients with complaints of persistent severe asthma could have acid reflux as the main trigger". When they are treated for asthma their reflux symptoms are also reduced.

    Children who are fed cow's milk regurgitate because they are allergic to the milk proteins.

    Why it occurs

    The pressure in the abdomen pushes the acid up if the pressure in the chest cavity is low. Also, people with severe asthma are given medicines to relax the diaphragm muscles, and the muscle sphincter that controls the movement of liquids from the stomach to the oesophagus. Asthmatics who take steroids indiscriminately are at risk for reflux.

    High-strung emotional "type A personality" people (pushy, always on the move, alcoholics, smokers), considered to be in the "high risk group" are prone to acid reflux.


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