How To Treat HeartburnOTC medications can provide relief from mild and occasional heartburn. Read this article to determine which medications to take for each specific case.

Feeling a burning pain in your chest after a heavy lunch or the next morning after drinking too much at the party last night? Most of us have. In fact, millions of Americans experience numerous episodes of heartburn in their lifetime. After analgesics, medications for the treatment of heartburn are the most widely used over the counter products.

Heartburn causes a burning sensation in the chest, specifically the chest region behind your breastbone. When you have excess acid in your stomach, the acid (along with food) can move upward and irritate the lining of the food pipe (i.e. esophagus). As a result, you can experience a burning sensation in the upper chest area.

A variety of medications to treat heartburn are available in the market. Occasional episodes can be managed effectively with OTC medications. Since you have a number of OTC medications with apparently similar effects, it is important to know which class of medications works best for your particular situation. 

OTC Medications for Heartburn: What are Your Options & Which Medication is Most Effective?



If you go to a pharmacy and ask for the medications for the burning pain your chest, the pharmacist can give you one of the following medications.


Antacids

As the name suggests, antacids like Tums, Maalox, Rolaids, and Mylanta work to neutralize stomach acid. Simply put, these medications neutralize excess acid in your stomach and thus protect the lining of the esophagus from further irritation. It is important to note that antacids only treat the symptoms of heartburn and have no role in regulating the production of acid.

The key points to realize while taking antacids is this: The relief is instantaneous. For example, if you have heartburn after a heavy meal, taking Tums can provide an immediate relief. However, the effect is short-lived. This happens because the effect lasts only as long as the medication is available in the stomach to neutralize the acid. Once the chemicals in the antacids are consumed, your symptoms may return.

Antacids are generally very well tolerated but can cause diarrhea, constipation and other digestive problems. The effects of some other medications may be lowered by concomitant use of antacids so check with your pharmacist regarding interactions.

H2 Blockers

H2 blockers include Zantac, Tagamet, and Pepcid. Also called histamine receptor H2 antagonist (H2RA), these medications reduce the production of stomach acid. That said, these medications do not neutralize the acid that is already present in the stomach. For this reason, you cannot expect to get immediate relief but their effect does last long, 8 to 24 hours. H2 blockers are particularly suitable for cases of mild heartburn. For desired relief, take them at least 30 minutes before a meal or bedtime. You may take H2 blockers for several weeks if you have frequent episodes of heartburn.

Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)

This class of drugs includes Prevacid 24HR (lansoprazole), Prilosec OTC (omeprazole) and Zegerid (omeprazole/sodium bicarbonate). These are powerful medications that are reserved for more severe and frequent cases of heartburn like GERD. In addition, your doctor may recommend long-term PPI therapy for stomach and intestinal ulcers. We don’t recommend PPIs for a short-term or mild heartburn. Similar to H2 blockers, PPIs suppress acid production but to a larger extent. You should take PPIs before a meal for maximum effectiveness.

Alginate Agents

Preparations containing alginates interact with stomach acid and form a foamy gel that protect esophageal lining from irritation by acid. The gel, which is almost neutral, prevents the acidic content from reaching the esophagus. Interestingly, the effects of alginate-based formulations last longer and can exceed those of common antacid preparations. Gaviscon is a popular product in this class.


OTC Treatments for Heartburn: Key Takeaways

  • Heartburn and GERD are not the same. In fact, the former is one of the symptoms of GERD. GERD is a more serious condition that should be evaluated by your doctor.
  • Antacids or alginates are suitable for short-term, infrequent and mild to moderate forms of heartburn. For quick relief, antacids or alginates trump all other options.
  • H2 blockers are safe, inexpensive and an effective treatment for frequent, uncomplicated heartburn. However, they may not be useful when you are looking for immediate relief.

  • Though PPIs seem a better choice than H2 blockers because of their once-daily dosing, you should refrain from taking them for mild heartburn. Take PPIs only when other OTC medications fail to provide the desired effects. Long term use of PPIs have been associated with increased risk of hip fractures, cardiac events, iron deficiency, Clostridium difficile infection and pneumonia.

  • Talk to your physician if any OTC medication for heartburn is ineffective after 2 weeks of use. Read the label carefully before taking a medication.
  • Ask a pharmacist if a particular OTC heartburn treatment is safe during pregnancy or lactation if it concerns you.