Common over-the-counter and prescription drugs used to treat heartburn, acid reflux, and ulcers can do more harm than good. These medications are meant to normalize the acidity of your stomach, but by doing so, they also increase your risks of suffering from heart and kidney failure, as well as stomach cancer. We write more on these drugs and their effect on your health below.
What Kinds of Heartburn Medications are Dangerous?
There are two main groups of medications that treat high acidity in the stomach, but only one type of these drugs is associated with an increased death risk. These are the so-called PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), which are considered to be more potent than H2 inhibitors that are also used to treat heartburn and acid reflux.
PPIs are among the most common and often-prescribed medications ever, with one of these medications, omeprazole, being on the Model List of Essential Medicines of the World Health Organization. An estimated 15 million people in the U.S. alone take prescription PPIs, but even more people could be taking over-the-counter PPIs. Apart from omeprazole, which is over-the-counter in the U.S., other PPIs are:
- Esomeprazole (OTC in the U.S.)
- Lansoprazole (OTC in the U.S.).
Some of the common trade names for PPIs include Zegerid, Nexium, Aciphex, Prevacid, Dexilant, Prilosec, and Protonix.
What are the Health Risks of PPIs?
These heartburn medications have a known history or affecting the heart and kidneys, but, according to a recent study published in The BMJ, taking PPIs can also cause stomach cancer. The study looked at over 157 000 participants who took prescription PPIs. After 10 years, they followed up on the participants and found that these subjects were, on average, 17% more likely to suffer a premature death than those who took H2 inhibitors.
More specifically, taking PPIs increased the patients’ risks of suffering from cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, and stomach cancer. Apart from being dangerous, PPIs are also overprescribed, with the study estimating that around half of their participants had no indication to take them and took them much longer than they had to.
This is very alarming, especially when you take into account that the duration of the treatment with PPIs proportionally increases one’s risks of death.
How to Protect Yourself from Adverse Effects
Since PPIs are prescribed so often and some of them are easily accessible over the counter, there should be more awareness about the dangers these medications pose to one's health. You should be especially careful about over-the-counter PPIs:
- Don’t take more than instructed.
- Don’t continue the treatment for more than 2 weeks. If your symptoms persist after 2 weeks, see a doctor.
- Ask your doctor for less invasive alternatives.
The findings of this study don’t mean that you shouldn’t seek treatment for acid reflux or heartburn altogether, as, apart from being painful, these conditions can develop into peptic ulcers that are very dangerous to your health. At the same time, it’s best if you avoid long-term PPI treatments and seek out a safer treatment with your doctor, especially if you have to take it long term.