The New York Times has reported that long-time use of prescription antacid drugs can result in certain illnesses, including severe anemia, bone fracture and infections. The medications can be especially dangerous for older patients, who are urged to used them as briefly as possible.
The Times cited the example of a medical student, Jolene Rudell, who fainted; she assumed that the stress of being in medical school had caused her to pass out. Two weeks later, she lost consciousness again.
Blood tests showed Rudell’s red blood cell count and iron level were dangerously low, even though she is a hearty eater (and a carnivore). Her physician pointed to another possible culprit: a popular drug used by millions of Americans to prevent gastroesophageal acid reflux, or severe heartburn.
Her doctor told her that long-term use of the drugs, called proton pump inhibitors, or P.P.I.’s, can make it difficult to absorb some nutrients. As many as four in 10 Americans have symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and many depend on P.P.I.’s like Prilosec, Prevacid and Nexium to reduce stomach acid. These are the third highest-selling class of drugs in the United States, after antipsychotics and statins, with more than 100 million prescriptions and $13.9 billion in sales in 2010, in addition to over-the-counter sales.
But in recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has issued numerous warnings about P.P.I.’s, saying long-term use and high doses have been associated with an increased risk of bone fractures and infection with a bacterium called Clostridium difficile that can be especially dangerous to elderly patients. Experts now recommend that older adults use the drugs only “for the shortest duration possible.”
Studies have shown long-term P.P.I. use may reduce the absorption of important nutrients, vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, calcium and vitamin B12, and might reduce the effectiveness of other medications. Other research has found that people taking P.P.I.’s are at increased risk of developing pneumonia; one study even linked use of the drug to weight gain.
Drug company officials dismiss such reports, saying that they do not prove the P.P.I.’s are the cause of the problems and that many P.P.I. users are older adults who are susceptible to infections and more likely to sustain fractures and have nutritional deficits.
But while taking the drugs for short periods may not be problematic, they tend to breed dependency, experts say, leading patients to take them for far longer than the recommended 8 to 12 weeks; some stay on them for life. Many hospitals have been starting patients on P.P.I.’s as a matter of routine, to prevent stress ulcers, then discharging them with instructions to continue the medication at home. Dr. Charlie Baum, head of U.S. Medical Affairs for Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America Inc., said its P.P.I. Dexilant is safe when used according to the prescribed indication of up to six months for maintenance, though many physicians prescribe it for longer.
P.P.I.’s work by blocking the production of acid in the stomach, but the body reacts by overcompensating and, she said, “revving up production” of acid-making cells.
“When people take P.P.I.’s, they haven’t cured the problem of reflux,” said Dr. Joseph Stubbs, an internist in Albany, Ga., and a former president of the American College of Physicians. “They’ve just controlled the symptoms.”
And P.P.I.’s provide a way for people to avoid making difficult lifestyle changes, like losing weight or cutting out the foods that cause heartburn, he said. “People have found, ‘I can keep eating what I want to eat, and take this and I’m doing fine,’ ” he said. “We’re starting to see that if you do that, you can run into some risky side effects.”
“We put people on P.P.I.’s, and we ignore the fact that we were designed to have acid in our stomach,” said Dr. Greg Plotnikoff, a physician who specializes in integrative therapy at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis.
Stomach acid is needed to break down food and absorb nutrients, he said, as well as for proper functioning of the gallbladder and pancreas. Long-term of use of P.P.I.’s may interfere with these processes, he noted. And suppression of stomach acid, which kills bacteria and other microbes, may make people more susceptible to infections, like C. difficile.
Taking P.P.I.’s, Dr. Plotnikoff said, “changes the ecology of the gut and actually allows overgrowth of some things that normally would be kept under control.”
Stomach acid also stimulates coughing, which helps clear the lungs. Some experts think this is why some patients, especially those who are frail and elderly, face an increased risk of pneumonia if they take P.P.I.’s.
But many leading gastroenterologists are convinced that the benefits of the drugs outweigh their risks. They say the drugs prevent serious complications of GERD, like esophageal and stomach ulcers and peptic strictures, which occur when inflammations causes the lower end of the esophagus to narrow.
Most physicians think that GERD is a side effect of the obesity epidemic, and that lifestyle changes could ameliorate heartburn for many.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical cases, pharmaceutical errors and product liability cases for more than 36 years for individuals and families in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Wheaton, West Chicago, Inverness, Des Plaines, Skokie, and Bolingbrook.
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