Some of the most popular heartburn drugs on the market, including Prevacid, Nexium, Pepcid, and Prilosec, have been found to put patients at risk for a serious gastrointestinal infection. Two different classes of medications were involved in the recent study, and both were implicated in the infections. This comes after another recent study found that some heartburn medications increase the risk of a stroke.
PPIs and H2 Blockers
There are two main classes of drugs that are used to treat heartburn, acid reflux, and related conditions. PPIs are proton pump inhibitors and include Prilosec, Prevacid, Protonix, and Nexium. These drugs work by reducing the amount of acid pumped into the stomach through certain enzymes. Zantac, Tagamet, and Pepcid are H2 blockers. They block the action of histamine in the stomach, which lowers the production of acid. Both types of drugs are sold as both prescriptions and over the counter.
Acid Blockers and Infections
These medications used to treat heartburn and similar conditions were already known to have risks, including magnesium deficiencies and bone weakness and fractures. Now, a new study with more than a half million participants has uncovered another very serious potential risk of using these drugs.
The study looked at patients in Scotland and split the large group in to three smaller groups: those taking a PPI, those taking an H2 blocker, and those taking no heartburn medications. The patients taking the drugs were at an increased risk for C. difficile or Campylobacter infections. The risk for the former was 1.7 times higher than in the control group and 3.7 times higher for the latter. The risk was even higher for patients taking the drugs while in a hospital.
These two infections attack the gastrointestinal tract and cause abdominal pain and diarrhea. They have the potential to be deadly, although many people recover. The researchers do not know why the risk of the infections increased, but hypothesized that the change in acid levels shifted the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
PPIs and Stroke Risk
This new information about PPIs and H2 blockers comes after another study proved there was a connection between PPIs and the risk of having a stroke. The risk was highest with Protonix and increased significantly with the dose. The lower doses of PPIs did not increase the risk of a stroke by very much.
Both of these studies point out that heartburn medication is not as safe as many people assume. Because many of them are available over the counter, without a prescription, the assumption is that they are benign. The study authors want patients to know that care should be taken when using any PPI or H2 blocker and that the risks should be carefully weighed against the benefits. If you use either of these types of medications, talk to your doctor about the risks and whether you have other options that may be safer.