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Are Antacids an Effective Remedy for Acid Reflux?

Antacids are compounds that can be used to neutralize acid on the spot, thus providing immediate relief of heartburn symptoms. Antacids are available at any drugstore, convenience store, and supermarket. All antacid products are over the counter and do not require a prescription. They are available for the general consumer to use at his or her own discretion. As mentioned, more than 7 million people suffer from regular acid reflux, and even more people suffer from occasional or infrequent heartburn symptoms. For this reason, people can choose from the hundreds of available options for antacids. They are available in many different forms: tablets, chewable pills, liquids, elixirs, or even powders that can be dissolved in water and ingested. Antacid products are available for adults and child use. The main purpose of all of these medications is to provide a substance that can block the damaging effects of acid that causes reflux symptoms.

To understand how antacids work, a short chemistry lesson is in order. There are acids (such as stomach acid, the acid in car batteries, or even foods like vinegar), and the opposite of these compounds are called bases (such as baking soda or strong bases such as Drano, which is used to clean pipes). Depending on the environment, which can be either acidic or basic. However, if you mix an acid and base in equal proportions, you can create a neutral environment. Thus, the antacid, a basic compound, works by neutralizing acid in the esophagus and stomach, making the refluxed fluid bland and no longer damaging. A classic example (and one you can try easily) is to take vinegar, an acid, and mix it with baking soda, a base. The result is a chemical reaction that produces bubbling and gas. This is sort of what happens in your stomach when you take an antacid. Some antacid preparations put on this “show” before you even take them, for example, when you place an Alka Seltzer tablet in a glass of water.

Antacids are generally used as first-line therapy for mild heartburn symptoms that occur occasionally. However, many people use antacids inappropriately, for example, the frequent heartburn sufferer who has symptoms many times a day and walks around eating an entire roll of calcium carbonate (Tums) or calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide (Rolaids) each day. Antacids are more effective and beneficial for those who experience reflux sporadically or less than once a week. H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors are much more effective if you have regular symptoms several times a week or daily because these drugs prevent acid production. Generally speaking, antacids do not prevent reflux symptoms from occurring, rather they treat symptoms after they have occurred.

Antacids come in many formulations, meaning they contain many different active ingredients to neutralize acid. Some are more effective than others and also may have other added health benefits or side effects. A favorite antacid that I use regularly (DLB) is calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate comes in many flavors, is chewable, and is effective for acid reflux. But an added benefit of calcium carbonate is that it contains calcium. Adults require 1200 to 1600 milligrams of calcium per day to maintain bone health, and this can be easily achieved by taking a few calcium carbonate tablets each day. In fact, I frequently recommend that my patients take calcium carbonate as a calcium supplement even if they do not have acid reflux.

In summary, antacids do not decrease production of stomach acid but rather neutralize acid and decrease symptoms of reflux. Antacids are most effective for those with infrequent reflux to treat symptoms as they occur, not to prevent them.

By Mortin - Copyright 2009
Last modification 31/12/2009

Are Antacids an Effective Remedy for Acid Reflux? References