Are Over the Counter Heartburn Medications Safe?

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According to the American College of Gastroenterology, more than 60 million Americans get heartburn at least once a month and 15 million of these people have symptoms every day. Given these numbers, it’s no wonder that there are so many over-the-counter (OTC) heartburn medications out there. These remedies can provide relief without needing to see a doctor or get a prescription, but are over the counter heartburn medications safe?

Types of Over the Counter Heartburn Medications

There are three categories of over the counter medication: antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Most people who have occasional heartburn find relief from antacids and H2 blockers, but people with more severe heartburn or even gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may require the more powerful effect of a PPI.

1. Antacids

Antacids are usually the first thing people use to treat heartburn. They are fast-acting but are not always effective against anything more than mild cases of heartburn. Antacids neutralize stomach acid with ingredients like magnesium, aluminum, and calcium. The most common form of antacid is in a chewable tablet, but you can get other forms, including liquid, dissolving tabs, and chews.

You are likely familiar with many OTC antacids, including:

  • Tums
  • Rolaids
  • Pepto-Bismol
  • Mylanta
  • Alka-Seltzer
  • Maalox

2. H2 Blockers

H2 blockers treat heartburn by reducing the amount of acid in the stomach. They start working within about an hour after taking them. They are slower than antacids but provide relief for up to 12 hours. H2 blockers can be taken before meals to prevent heartburn or taken after symptoms have begun. 

There are prescription-strength H2 blockers, but OTC varieties are very common. Common over the counter H2 blockers include:

  • Cimetidine (generic Tagamet HB)
  • Famotidine (generic Pepcid AC or Pepcid Complete) 
  • Nizatidine (generic Axid AR)

3. Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)

Proton pump inhibitors, referred to as PPIs are the most powerful OTC heartburn treatment. They also treat heartburn by reducing the amount of acid in the stomach. Because they are more powerful, PPIs are often used to treat chronic conditions like GERD and ulcers in the stomach and small intestines. However, for serious conditions like this prescription varieties are often recommended.

There are a variety of PPIs available with a prescription, but there is only a handful that you can get over the counter. Non-prescription PPIs you can get at your local pharmacy include:

  • Omeprazole (generic Prilosec OTC & Zegerid OTC)
  • Lansoprazole (generic Prevacid OTC & Prevacid 24 Hour)
  • Nexium OTC

If you are using over the counter heartburn medication infrequently or for short periods, the risk of negative side effects is low. If you have severe heartburn and treatments are not effective within two weeks, ask your doctor about prescriptions and other treatments. And again, consult the doctor before taking any OTC medication regularly.

Make an Appointment

At Birmingham Gastroenterology Associates, we are committed to providing comprehensive care for patients with diseases and disorders of the digestive tract. This includes diagnosing and treating heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD. If you have questions or concerns about the safety of over the counter heartburn medications, call us at (205) 271-8000 to make an appointment at one of our convenient locations in the Birmingham area. 

Schedule Your Appointment Today

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