How do medications treat GERD and heartburn?

Should symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) persist, over-the-counter antacids may decrease discomfort. Antacids, however, only work for a short time and for this reason, they have a limited role in treating reflux disease. Histamine H2-receptor antagonists (such as cimetidine, ranitidine, nizatidine and famotidine) decrease acid production in the stomach. These medications work well for treating mild reflux symptoms and are quite safe, with few side effects. They are available over the counter at a reduced dose, or at a higher dose when given by prescription by your doctor. Proton pump inhibitors (such as omeprazole, lansoprazole, dexlansoprazole, pantoprazole, esomeprazole and rabeprazole) are all highly effective in treating reflux symptoms. These medications act by blocking the final step of acid production in the stomach and are typically taken once or twice daily prior to meals. For reflux symptoms that occur frequently, proton pump inhibitors are the most effective medical treatment. These medications typically work well, are safe and have few side effects. There may possibly be an increased risk of certain side effects with high doses or with long-term use (over one year), however. You should discuss this with your doctor if you require long-term use or high doses. Prokinetics, or medications that stimulate muscle activity in the stomach and esophagus, are sometimes provided for the treatment of reflux disease. The only available drug in the market is metoclopramide, which has little benefit in the treatment of reflux disease and has some side effects, some of which can be serious.

Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, DO

Many meds help relieve GERD, but some can weaken bones over time. Watch this video with gastroenterologist Dr. Lisa Ganjhu to learn which GERD medications are fine for the long haul.

Most people treat the first symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and heartburn with over-the-counter medications, such as antacids and drugs that reduce or prevent the production of stomach acid. If your doctor decides that you need stronger medications, you might be prescribed more powerful versions of the types of drugs that reduce or prevent the production of stomach acid. These include H2 receptor antagonists that decrease acid production (common brand names include Zantac, Tagamet and Pepcid) and proton pump inhibitors that block acid production (common brand names include Prilosec, Nexium and Prevacid). Over-the-counter foaming agents that contain antacids (a common brand name is Gaviscon) can be used to coat the stomach. There are also prescription medications called prokinetic agents that help the stomach empty itself faster and strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter, which is the muscle that acts like a valve between your esophagus and your stomach. However, significant side effects have been reported with prokinetic agents.

Continue Learning about GERD

Get Smarter About Heartburn Drugs
Get Smarter About Heartburn Drugs
Proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs – taken by an estimated 20 million Americans to douse heartburn pain – are associated with a 44 percent increased risk...
Read More
Can acid reflux lead to cancer?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MDDr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Acid reflux can damage the esophagus, which can ultimately lead to cancer. Learn more on this topic ...
More Answers
Who is a good candidate for endoscopic surgery for GERD?
Dr. Mauri G. Lunderman, MDDr. Mauri G. Lunderman, MD
Surgery to correct GERD is considered in younger patients to help them from a lifetime of ongoing re...
More Answers
How Can I Get My Heartburn Under Control?
How Can I Get My Heartburn Under Control?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.