Treating heartburn and GERD
Use Nexium, Prilosec, and related drugs carefullyDownload PDF
If you have heartburn, or a feeling of burning pain in your upper abdomen or lower chest, you might be tempted to try a powerful drug such as Nexium, Prevacid, or Prilosec. Those drugs, called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), can be good choices for severe or frequent heartburn. But in most cases PPIs aren’t necessary. And when they are, consider using the lowest dose necessary for as short a time as possible. Here’s why:
You might not need a PPI.
A PPI can help if you have heartburn more than twice a week for several weeks, or a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). But studies suggest that up to 70 percent of people taking a PPI were never diagnosed with GERD. Instead, they might have less serious heartburn, which can often be eased with dietary and other lifestyle changes and, if necessary, antacids like Rolaids and Tums or another class of medication, known as H2 blockers, such as Pepcid AC and Zantac.
The drugs can pose risks.
High doses of PPIs, and taking them for a year or longer, has been linked to an increased risk of bone fractures. Long-term use might also deplete magnesium blood levels, which, in turn, can trigger muscle spasms, irregular heartbeats, and convulsions. Another complication of long-term use is an intestinal infection called Clostridium difficile that can lead to severe diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, death. PPIs can also interact with other medications. For example, omeprazole (Prilosec) can reduce the blood-thinning effect of the drug clopidogrel (Plavix), which can increase the risk of heart attack and even death. Esomeprazole (Nexium), and the H2 blocker, cimetidine (Tagamet), might also interact with Plavix in that same way.
PPIs cost more.
A month’s supply of a prescription strength PPI could cost you about $100 to $300 more than you would pay for antacids or an H2 blocker. A low-dose, over-the-counter PPI such as Prilosec OTC or store-brand or generic version, costs less than the prescription options, but still runs about $10 more a month than the other heartburn drugs.
When should you consider a PPI?
Talk with a doctor if you have heartburn at least twice a week for several weeks, if you often regurgitate food into your throat, or if your heartburn is not relieved by lifestyle changes and antacids or H2 blockers. When a PPI is necessary, start with a low dose of omeprazole or Prilosec OTC (15 mg) or Prevacid 24HR (15 mg). If symptoms improve, consider taking a break after a few weeks. To reduce the risk of rebound heartburn, gradually lower your dose, try taking it every other day, or take an antacid.
Using This Information
This information is provided for you to use in discussions with your health care provider. The content is for educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Unfortunately, we cannot help you with individual medical questions. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard, avoid or delay in obtaining medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health care provider because of something you have read in this report. Use of this report is at your own risk. Consumer Reports, American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), ABIM Foundation, and their distributors are not liable for any loss, injury, or other damages related to your use of this report.
The report is intended solely for consumers' personal, noncommercial use and may not be altered or modified in any way or used in advertising, promotion, or for any other commercial purpose. Special permission is granted to organizations participating in the Consumer Reports consumer health communication program to disseminate free copies of this report in print or digital (PDF) formats to individual members and employees. Learn more at ConsumerHealthChoices.org or send an e-mail to HealthImpact@cr.consumer.org.
Published by Consumer Reports © 2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc., 101 Truman Ave., Yonkers, NY 10703-1057. Developed in cooperation with American Gastroenterological Association for Choosing Wisely, a project of the ABIM Foundation. Portions of this report are derived from AGA's “Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question” list. © 2012 American Gastroenterological Association.
Consumer Reports' Advice
Ease heartburn without drugs
Many people with heartburn don’t need drugs at all. They can get all the relief they need from dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Watch what (and how) you eat. Monitor what you eat to figure out which foods and beverages trigger your heartburn. Then try to avoid them. Common triggers include alcohol, oranges and other citrus fruits, chocolate, coffee and other caffeinated beverages, fried foods, garlic and onions, spicy foods, peppermint, and foods rich in tomatoes, such as marinara sauce, salsa, and pizza. It can also help to eat smaller meals and to avoid lying down for at least two hours after eating.
- Stop smoking and lose excess weight. If you need another reason to kick the habit and shed some pounds, heartburn may be it. Smoking and being overweight are clearly linked to heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Loosen up. Avoid tight clothes or tight belts that press on your abdomen, because the extra pressure can worsen heartburn symptoms.
- Get a good night’s sleep. To help reduce nighttime flare-ups, try placing wooden blocks under your bedposts to raise the head of your bed about 6 to 8 inches.