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Heartburn Symptoms: A Pharmacist's Guide to Treating Heartburn

Try these tips to ease heartburn symptoms.

Treating Heartburn Symptoms Over the Counter continued...

"There are a couple of different kinds of heartburn medicine to consider," says Weart. "Most people with heartburn choose antacids first, which are quick to take effect, but short-acting. That means if you take an antacid in the middle of the night, you may wake up again a couple of hours later with recurrent heartburn. H2 receptor blockers are much more effective in the long run."

Isn't there something that offers the fast relief of the antacid, and the long-lasting benefit of the H2 blockers? In fact, there is. "Some heartburn medicines combine antacids with the H2 blockers," says Weart. "These drugs, like Pepcid Complete, offer a fixed combination of the two medications. Or you can do the same thing by taking your favorite antacid with an H2 receptor blocker."

You can also plan ahead to avoid heartburn. If you're going out for a big meal as a treat, and know you might be eating some foods you shouldn't, take your heartburn medicine early. "Take an H2 blocker (like Tagamet or Zantac OTC)  about an hour or two before the meal, and it will kick in and suppress the acid that's causing heartburn symptoms before they start," says Weart.

If you have two or more episodes of acid reflux per week, you may want to try taking a 14-day course of over-the-counter Prilosec, a heartburn medicine in a class of drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPI's). These medicines shut off acid production more completely and for a longer period of time.

"That's the standard treatment for frequent heartburn," says Weart. These heartburn medicines should be taken 30 minutes to an hour before a full meal (not just a cup of coffee and piece of toast) to maximize their benefit.

About half of those who complete the 14-day treatment will no longer have recurrent heartburn. You can try this course of heartburn medicine up to three times in a year; after that, says Weart, you should really seek a physician referral for long-term therapy.

When Heartburn Symptoms Might Be Dangerous

If you're managing your heartburn symptoms on your own, it's essential to know what symptoms should sound the alarm. Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bleeding or dark, tarry stool
  • Chest pain
  • Choking or shortness of breath, including severe, persistent hoarseness and coughing

"All of these are atypical and alarming symptoms," says Weart. "You may think it's heartburn but it actually could be something else, like a heart attack. And if you frequently use over-the-counter remedies and don't respond to them or get an inadequate response, check with your doctor. Acid reflux can also be a symptom of something more serious, like malignancies."

Reviewed on August 08, 2008

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