Heartburn medication can increase the risk of deadly health issues: Study

Most people have used PPIs at one point or another to reduce heartburn, ulcers and acid reflux but new research shows the medication could increase the risk of serious health issues. Source: Getty

Heartburn, ulcers and acid reflux are health problems experienced by many and while using medication may relieve pain and symptoms, it turns out extended use of these drugs could actually end up doing more harm than good.

New research published in the BMJ Journal links long-term use of medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to deadly cases of cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease and even gastrointestinal cancer. The study shows there’s an increase in the risk of death even when people are using PPI drugs at low doses.

“Taking PPIs over many months or years is not safe, and now we have a clearer picture of the health conditions associated with long-term PPI use,” senior author Ziyad Al-Aly said in a statement.

The latest research follows previous studies which have linked PPIs to other serious health issues including dementia, bone fractures, heart disease and pneumonia. The medications work by reducing gastric acid — digestive fluid that forms in the stomach — but are known to cause side effects such as headaches, constipation and nausea.

The study analysed medical records in a database maintained by the US Department of Veterans Affairs and identified 157,625 people who had been newly prescribed PPIs and 56,842 who had been prescribed H2 blockers (another class of acid-suppression drugs). Researchers followed the 214,467 patients for 10 years and found a 17 per cent increased risk of death in people who took PPIs compared to those who used H2 blockers.

Death rates for PPIs were 387 per 1,000 people, while death rates for H2 blockers were 342 per 1,000.

Read more: How safe are heartburn medications and who should use them?

“Given the millions of people who take PPIs regularly, this translates into thousands of excess deaths every year,” Al-Aly said.

The study found 15 of the 1,000 PPI deaths were related to heart disease, four were associated with kidney disease and two were due to stomach cancer. It also found that more than half of people taking PPIs did so without medical need and 80 per cent of PPI users were on low doses.

“Most alarming to me is that serious harm may be experienced by people who are on PPIs but may not need them,” Al-Aly said. “Overuse is not devoid of harm.”

Experts are now calling for PPIs to come with clearer warnings about the potential for significant health risks and clearer warnings that people shouldn’t be taking the medication for more than 14 days. Even where medication is sold over-the-counter, people should be discussing potential side effects with a health professional.

People who use the drugs are also encouraged to avoid taking them when they’re not really needed.

Read more: Common acid reflux, heartburn medicines could hike liver disease risk

“These people may be exposed to potential harm when it is unlikely the drugs are benefiting their health. Our study suggests the need to avoid PPIs when not medically necessary,” Al-Aly said. “For those who have a medical need, PPI use should be limited to the lowest effective dose and shortest duration possible.”

How do you prevent heartburn, ulcers and acid reflux? Have you experienced any health complications when taking certain medications?

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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