How is heartburn treated?
Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids and acid blockers are the most commonly used medicines for treating heartburn. Along with diet and lifestyle changes, they can help relieve the symptoms of occasional heartburn.
If your heartburn is not relieved with OTC antacids or acid blockers, talk to your doctor. You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or another condition that may need different treatment.
Occasional heartburn is common and generally not serious. However, GERD may lead to esophagitis, an inflammation of the lining of the esophagus (food tube). Esophagitis happens when stomach acid repeatedly comes into contact with the lining of the esophagus. If the condition is severe, the person can develop ulcers, bleeding, and blood loss.
GERD may also lead to esophageal stricture, a narrowing of the esophagus that makes it hard to swallow. Barrett's esophagus and even cancer can occur if reflux and heartburn last a long time.
Your doctor may want to do an endoscopy to check for these or other conditions. An endoscopy is the examination of your digestive tract with a lighted flexible instrument.
How do antacids work to treat heartburn?
Antacids neutralize (reduce) excess stomach acid to relieve heartburn, sour stomach, acid indigestion, and stomach upset. They can also be used to relieve the pain of stomach and duodenal ulcers. Some antacids contain simethicone, which reduces gas. Examples of antacids you can buy without a prescription:
Take antacids as directed by your doctor or by the directions on the package. For ulcers, take the medicine for as long as your doctor tells you. If you use tablets, chew them well before swallowing for faster relief.
Some antacids contain magnesium or sodium bicarbonate, which can act like a laxative. Do not take antacids if you have any symptoms of appendicitis or bowel inflammation. Side effects of antacids may include:
- White or pale bowel movements
- Stomach cramps
Serious side effects can occur with an overdose or overuse of antacids.
How do acid blockers work to treat heartburn?
Products like Pepcid AC® are called histamine H2 blockers, or acid blockers. Acid blockers reduce the production of stomach acid. They relieve heartburn, acid indigestion, and sour stomach. Take these drugs according to the directions on the package, or as your doctor tells you. Acid blockers you can buy without a prescription include:
- Pepcid AC
- Tagamet HB®
- Zantac 75®
- Axid AR®
Take your acid blocker medicine regularly for as long as directed by your doctor, even if you do not have any pain or if your symptoms get better. Side effects of acid blockers include headache, dizziness, and diarrhea.
If you have any of the following possibly serious side effects after taking acid blockers, tell your doctor right away:
- Chest tightness
- Sore throat
- Irregular heartbeat
- Weakness or unusual fatigue
Acid blockers in prescription strength block stomach acid, and treat stomach or duodenal ulcers, erosive esophagitis, and GERD by reducing the production of stomach acid. They may also be used for other conditions as determined by your doctor.
Should I take antacids and acid blockers together to treat heartburn?
Your doctor may want you to take antacids when you start taking acid blockers. Antacids will control your symptoms until the acid blockers start to work. If your doctor prescribes an antacid, take it an hour before (or an hour after) you take an acid blocker.
What are prescription medications for heartburn?
If OTC antacids and acid blockers do not relieve your heartburn, your doctor may give you a prescription for other medicines, such as:
- Prescription-strength acid blockers. In prescription strength (usually higher doses), Zantac, Tagamet, Pepcid, and Axid can generally relieve heartburn and treat GERD.
- Proton pump inhibitors. These are drugs that block acid production more effectively. Proton pump inhibitors include Aciphex®, Nexium®, Prevacid®, Prilosec®, and Protonix®.
- Promotility agents. Drugs such as Reglan® speed up the digestive process. This decreases the amount of stomach acid that splashes back into the esophagus.