The Most Common Prescription Medications Used to Treat GERD

PPIs top the list of prescribed meds. Here's what you should know.

Hand holding drinking glass with pills on table
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The most common prescription medications used for the treatment of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) are proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). 

Proton pump inhibitors are acid reducers. Doctors prescribe PPIs to treat people with heartburn (acid reflux), ulcers of the stomach or intestine, or excess stomach acid (Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome).

How PPIs Work

One of the reasons why proton pump inhibitors are prescribe often is because they tend to successfully relieve heartburn.

Your stomach produces acid to help break down food so it is easier to digest. In certain circumstances, this acid can irritate the lining of your stomach and duodenum — the medical name for the upper part of your small intestine — causing heartburn and even ulcers.

The stomach contains a pump, called the gastric acid pump, which produces stomach acid. PPIs block the secretion of acid into the stomach by binding to these pumps. Decreasing the amount of stomach acid can help ulcers heal and reflux to subside.

Common PPI Brands

Aciphex is used to treat ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD or heartburn), and other conditions involving excessive stomach acid production.

Nexium Known as the little purple pill, Nexium, which is also generically known as Esomeprazole, is available by prescription and over-the-counter. It is used to treat ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), erosive esophagitis, and other conditions involving excessive stomach acid production.

Prevacid is used to treat and prevent stomach and intestinal ulcers, erosive esophagitis (damage to the esophagus from stomach acid), and other conditions involving excessive stomach acid.

Prilosec is used to help treat gastric ulcers, duodenal ulcers, GERD and erosive esophagitis. Prilosec is also used to treat the common ulcer-causing bacteria H.pylori.

 

Protonix is prescribed to used to treat GERD, erosive esophagitis associated with GERD, peptic ulcer disease (as part of combination therapy with an antibiotic to eradicate H. Pylori), and hypersecretory disorders including Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.

What You Should Know Before Taking PPIs

In 2012, the FDA issued a warning to consumers that using PPIs may be associated with an increased risk of diarrhea associated with Clostridium difficile (C-difficile). This bacterium is marked by diarrhea that does not improve, as well as watery stools, abdominal pain, and fever. Contact your physician if you experience these symptoms, as C-difficile can cause more gastrointestinal issues.

In addition, PPIs have been associated with an increased risk of heart attackkidney disease, and bone fractures. Though there is no consistent evidence linking bone density to PPI use, the evidence associating proton pump inhibitors with heart attacks and kidney disease are more substantial since they were large data studies looking at the medical records of thousands (and in one case millions) of people.

For these reasons, it is important to take these over-the-counter medications with some guidance. Communication with your doctor is key. Proton pump inhibitors are not meant to be taken for long periods of time, and your physician can determine whether this is the best type of medication for you, or whether an H2 blocker or antacid may be a better fit, if lifestyle changes can't manage your GERD symptoms.

Sources

"Use of Proton Pump Inhibitors and Risk of Bone Fractures in Adults." Johnson, T. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 3 June 2014.

"FDA Drug Safety Communication: Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea can be associated with stomach acid drugs known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)." U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 8 February 2012.

"Understanding Some of the Medications Often Prescribed for GERD & Ulcers." Common GI Problems: Volume 1. American College of Gastroenterology. 6 Jun 2008.

Frank L. Lanza, M.D., F.A.C.G., "A Guideline for the Treatment and Prevention of NSAID-Induced Ulcers." Vol. 93, No. 11, 1998. American College of Gastroenterology 6 Jun 2008.

Kenneth R. DeVault M.D., F.A.C.G., and Donald O. Castell M.D., M.A.C.G., "Updated Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease." doi: 10.1111/j.1572-0241.2005.41217.x. American College of Gastroenterology. 6 Jun 2008.

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