Heartburn is a symptom most people will experience sooner or later in life. In most cases the onset of occasional heartburn will correspond to something eaten and a simple antacid will settle down the gastrointestinal upset.
When heartburn becomes a more chronic problem, a type of medicine called H2 receptor antagonists or simply H2 blockers, might be a better option and can actually prevent heartburn from occurring in the first place. Not too surprisingly, H2 blockers like Pepcid A/C, Tagamet, Zantac and others have become quite popular. But does the use of these drugs come with any risks.
Generically known as cimetidine, ranitidine, famotidine, and nizatidine, H2 blockers suppress the production of acid in the stomach, and are available as over the counter (OTC) medications. As compared with antacids, which generally provide 1-2 hours of relief, H2 blockers will suppress acid production for 10-12 hours. They are generally well tolerated by most people and only rarely manifest side effects such as: fatigue, dizziness, headaches, confusion, diarrhea, and constipation. Even more rarely, H2 blockers may cause hypertension, kidney damage, and according to at least one study, prolonged use by elderly African Americans contributed to cognitive decline. *
For about 25 % of the population, H2 blockers simply don’t work well, but there is another class of acid blocker known as Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) also offering long term relief to heartburn sufferers. Prilosec is probably the best known OTC Proton-pump inhibitor, and contains the active ingredient omeprazole. There are actually quite a few other brand name PPI products available, involving the same and some slightly different active ingredients. They all work the same way, and exhibit pretty much the same array of side effects and risks as H2 blockers. In the case of PPIs, a link between use of the drugs and increased susceptibility to pneumonia has been identified. Older folks using acid blockers, or their care givers, might want to be particularly vigilant in combating communicable exposure to pneumonia, and a doctor would likely suggest an inoculation with the pneumonia vaccine as well.
There may be additional side effects and risks to taking acid blockers in conjunction with other OTC and prescription medications. As always, it is good to check with ones personal physician in such cases and let them know all medications being used. The pharmacist at a local drug store may also be able to provide information on drug interactions as well as possible side effects. Finally, if a heartburn sufferer experiences the need for continuous use of H2 blockers, PPIs, or even simple antacids for more than a week, they should seek medical attention as their may be a more serious medical condition underlying a chronic heartburn problem.
When one does experience a little heartburn, it's good to know there is something in the medicine cabinet that will take care of it. It’s also prudent to be aware of any risks and potential side effects associated with medicines taken to alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux or heartburn.