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Heartburn drugs like Nexium, Prilosec and Zantac may be linked to an increased risk of pneumonia, according to the findings of a new study conducted by South Korean researchers.
The heartburn drug study was an attempt to correlate data collected throughout the years on whether the drugs affected the risk of catching pneumonia. The researchers said that studies to date have been inconclusive, with some studies finding a connection and others not.
Researchers in this latest effort collected data from 31 studies conducted on the topic throughout the years. When they looked at all of the data collected so far, they found that there was a 27% higher risk of pneumonia for people using a class of heartburn drugs called proton pump inhibitors that includes Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid, and there was a 22% increased risk for people using histamine-2 receptor antagonists, like Zantac, Protonix and Pepsid. The numbers were the same for both hospital-acquired pneumonia and community-acquired pneumonia.
The researchers cautioned that the risk was relatively small. For individuals who were not on a heartburn drug, about 20 out of 1,000 contract hospital-acquired pneumonia, compared with about 25 out of 1,000 patients who were on a heartburn drug.
Hospital-acquired pneumonia is a common risk for critically ill patients, particularly those on ventilators. Contraction of pneumonia puts critically ill patients at a 20 to 30 percent risk of death, and can increase a patient’s hospital stay by seven to nine days, potentially exposing them to other complications. Pneumonia usually occurs because stomach secretions have entered the lungs.
While the study shows an increased risk of pneumonia when using heartburn drugs, the researchers said that their findings are not proof that the increased pneumonia risk is due to Zantac or Nexium side effects. They said that it is possible that chronic acid reflux could be causing cases of pneumonia when acid from the stomach gets into the lungs. Such patients would likely be on heartburn drugs to control their acid reflux.
They concluded that until more could be learned about the causal link, or the link could be disproven, doctors should be careful when prescribing heartburn drugs, particularly to patients who are already at higher risk of pneumonia. Patients should discuss the benefits and risks of such drugs with their doctors, they recommended.