Heartburn Medication Linked to Increase Risk of Pneumonia

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
July 12, 2018
Heartburn Medication Linked to Increase Risk of Pneumonia

One of the drugs commonly prescribed to control frequent acid reflux, or GERD, has been linked to pneumonia in older adults, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society

Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) are the drug class of choice to control GERD. About 40 percent of older Americans take them. You can recognize them by their names – they usually end in “zole”. For example, omeprazole is the generic name for Prilosec; lansoprazole is Prevacid and dexlansoprazole is Dexilent. They work by blocking the production of stomach acid, allowing esophageal tissue to heal and preventing symptoms such as heartburn, coughing and reflux. 

GERD is a serious condition which can interfere with the quality of life and can damage your esophagus, raise your risk for esophageal cancer and promote tooth decay. This study highlights a surprising side effect of heartburn medication.

“Stomach acid is needed for proper digestion,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “However, your body may produce too much, particularly if you have GI issues or take medications regularly. This is when PPIs are valuable.”

Long-term use of PPIs may also disrupt gut flora and impair your immune system. Stomach acid helps control harmful bacteria from food and environmental contaminants. It also serves as a barrier to infections spreading from the gut in people with acid reflux. And some studies have found that decreases in stomach acid increase the risk for E. coli, Salmonella and Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infections.

Pneumonia -- another very serious infection -- is the leading cause of infectious disease death in the United States. This led researchers from the University of Exeter to study the connection between long-term PPI use and pneumonia. They accessed electronic medical records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) for England and identified more than 75,000 medical records of primary care patients aged 60 and older who had been taking PPIs for at least one year. After reviewing these records and conducting a statistical analysis, researchers found that patients in their second year of PPI treatment had a greater risk of contracting pneumonia.

“If your doctor has prescribed a PPI or advised you to take an over-the-counter PPI, don’t skip it. Discuss it with your doctor. It may be medically necessary, and your doctor can work with you to strengthen your immune system. Or your doctor might help you find alternative acid reducers,” Kaminetsky says.

There are some foods that are known to help lower your stomach acid that you can add into your diet to help with heartburn. Next time you’re grocery shopping, pick up some:

  • Oatmeal. It’s a smart breakfast choice because it’s high in fiber, which seems to reduce symptoms associated with acid reflux.
  • Bananas and melons (cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon). These non-acidic fruits make great snacks for people dealing with GERD. But pay attention to your symptoms after eating these fruits. One percent of people with GERD find these fruits exacerbate the acid reflux. 
  • Celery and fennel. Snacking on these crunchy vegetables or adding them to salads may improve acid reflux.  
  • Ginger. Sprinkling it into dinner recipes and smoothies might help. Studies suggest that in moderation, ginger can help ease stomach ailments, including acid reduction.

If you are struggling with GERD or taking a PPI, talk to your doctor, as they’re may be alternatives. Just make sure you talk to your MDVIP-affiliated doctor before stopping a medication or making any dietary changes for heartburn. Looking for a primary care physician? Physicians in MDVIP-affiliated practices can customize a wellness plan for you. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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