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Heartburn Medications May Increase Your Risk of Pneumonia

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Updated May 12, 2008

Recent findings have shown that taking certain medications, called proton pump inhibitors or PPIs, for acid reflux can nearly double a user's risk of pneumonia.

Dutch researchers have found in a study of more than 300,000 patients that medications for GERD and ulcers could make people more susceptible to pneumonia. The study was led by researcher Robert J.F. Laheij at University Medical Center St. Radboud in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

If you only take these medications once in a while, and you are relatively healthy, you don't have to worry. But if you take these medications on a regular basis, such as patients who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) who usually take these types of medications on a daily basis, you should consult your doctor.

PPIs include Prilosec (called Losec in Europe), Prevacid, Aciphex, Nexium, and Protonix.

Although proton pump inhibitors are the most powerful drugs used to combat acid reflux, other medications, called H2 receptor antagonists (also known as Histamine receptor antagonists), could increase your risk of pneumonia. These drugs include Tagamet, Pepcid, and Zantac.

All of these medications do is what they are supposed to do: reduce stomach acid. So why the increased risk? Your body uses stomach acid to kill germs that get into your stomach. When stomach acid levels get low, body becomes a more hospitable place to such germs. There can then be some aspiration of this bacteria into the airway when stomach contents are refluxed into the throat and mouth. This occurs when the patient suffers from laryngopharyngeal reflux, or LPR.

Before you panic and toss your medications, you should know that the risk of pneumonia isn't high. According to the study, one in 100 people who took the drugs for a full year would get a lung infection he or she wouldn't otherwise have had. But it is a very good idea to discuss this study with your doctor. It's also very important to consult your doctor before discontinuing a medication, or taking less than the prescribed dosage.

When you discuss the medications you are taking for such conditions as GERD or ulcers, ask your doctor the following questions.

  • Do I really need to take these medications?
    • When should I take them?
    • When should I stop taking them?

  • Are there any alternatives to taking these medications continually?
    • Would it help if I changed my diet?
    • What if I stopped smoking?
    • What if I lost weight?
    • Are there other lifestyle changes I can make that will help reduce acid reflux?

  • Should I be worried about developing pneumonia?

  • What might increase or decrease my risk of developing pneumonia?

  • Is there a different drug I could take that would lessen my risk of pneumonia?

  • If I have to continue taking this medication, are there different ways to use the drug that can reduce my risk of developing pneumonia?
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