Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, occurs when stomach acid backflows up the esophagus. This causes irritation of the lining of the esophagus, resulting in an uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, sensation in the chest. This condition is usually short-lived and harmless, though unpleasant. If a patient experiences heartburn more than two nights a week on a regular basis or has heartburn so severe that it interferes with daily life, the patient may have a more serious, chronic condition known as GERD, which may require professional medical treatment. Occasional heartburn, however, can generally be treated at home.
Over-the-counter medications have a high success rate in treating occasional heartburn. There are a few different types of medication that you can buy without a prescription at your local drug store, including:
Antacids – The primary job of antacids, such as Tums, Maalox, or Mylanta, is to neutralize acid in the stomach. Antacids typically take effect quickly, but are not particularly long-lasting. Depending on the fullness of the stomach, the effects may last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Select antacids, such as Gaviscon, contain a foaming agent, which creates a barrier between the stomach and the esophagus, adding an additional layer of protection. Others, such as Pepto Bismol, coat the esophagus, protecting it from irritation. Antacids may cause side effects, including diarrhea or constipation. They may interfere with the body’s absorption of other medications. Chronic overuse of antacids may lead to kidney damage.
H2 Blockers – These medications reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes, meaning there is less acid available to back up into the esophagus. These medications are a bit slower to act than antacids, but may last up to 12 hours. Common non-prescription H2 blockers are Tagamet, Zantac, and Pepcid AC.
Proton Pump Inhibitors – PPIs also reduce stomach acid, but are typically only recommended as a next step when symptoms are severe or the patient has had no luck with antacids or H2 Blockers. PPIs are slow to take effect, sometimes requiring five days before relief is found. However, these medications are generally safe to use for longer periods of time, even with many medical conditions.
When starting any new medication, even over-the-counter varieties, it is wise to speak with your doctor or a pharmacist about possible interactions with other medications you take or health conditions you have. Medications may react with each other in odd ways, and it is always best to be safe and consult an informed medical professional.