New Research Links Heartburn Drugs to Increased Risk for Pneumonia

A recently released study links two common types of heartburn medications to an increased risk of pneumonia. The study, conducted by researchers in South Korea, analyzed 31 international research projects looking for a correlation between the two widely used heartburn drugs and pneumonia.

The study, using data from patients both infected in hospitals and outside hospitals, found that patients were 25 percent more likely to develop pneumonia if they were taking either of the two types of heartburn medications. Medications implicated in the study are proton pump inhibitors like Prevacid, Prilosec, and Nexium, and H2 receptor blocker medications. These include Pepcid and Zantac.

One theory accounting for the increased risk for pneumonia in patients taking medications for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) questions whether the reduction in stomach acid allows bacteria to survive and infect the body. Most ingested bacteria are normally killed by stomach acid. Both types of heartburn medication reduce stomach acid.

Patients exposed to pneumonia in the hospital had infection rates averaging 20 cases per 1,000. Those taking either of the medications had infection rates averaging 25 per 1,000. Although significant, this is not considered a large increase in risk.

One aspect of the study concerning the researchers is the prevalence of GERD medication use in patients. They estimate that between 40 and 70 percent of patients in the hospital are taking heartburn medications. The researchers believe this could be a significant factor in pneumonia rates in hospitals. Patients and their doctors in Atlanta, Georgia should discuss the additional risk.

Some researchers proposed that the existence of chronic acid reflux itself might account for the increase in risk, rather than it being caused by the medications. It is possible that stomach acids, escaping from the stomach and entering air passages, could cause pneumonia.

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