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High street heartburn drugs ‘could make people 80% more likely to get stomach bugs’

High street heartburn drugs could make people 80% more likely to get stomach bugs ‘because they get rid of protective acid in the gut’, study claims

  • Study of 900,000 people found 80% increased risk of developing stomach flu
  • Prolonged use may rid the stomach of too much acid, vital for fighting infection 
  • But experts criticised study methods and said findings were far from conclusive 

Millions of people taking a common heartburn drug may be at a higher risk of developing stomach bugs, research suggests.

In a study of 900,000 people, scientists found those who took the acid-reflux medications were 80 per cent more likely to develop acute gastroenteritis.

The condition is a sudden inflammation or swelling of the stomach lining that can make people violently sick.

Researchers believe using the drugs for a prolonged period of time may get rid of too much stomach acid – vital for fending off infections. 

Taking over-the-counter heartburn drugs like Nexium may put you at a higher risk of developing stomach bugs, research suggests.

But they warn patients against scrapping their treatments because the benefit of the drugs may still outweigh the risk.

Heartburn drugs like Nexium, also known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), are cheap and available over-the-counter in Britain, the US and most of Europe. 

In the latest study, researchers from Sorbonne University in Paris analysed around 900,000 medical records from a French national database.

They compared 233,000 people who took PPIs continuously with nearly 627,000 adults not taking the drug.

When researchers looked at the 2015-16 winter virus season, they noted that people who took PPIs all the time were 80 per cent more likely to get stomach flu.

Supermarkets recall own-brand heartburn drugs over fears they are contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical 

Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s own-brand ranitidine drugs have been pulled from the shelves in the latest development in an ongoing global contamination scandal.

An announcement from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) revealed another 13 non-prescription products have been affected.

It comes after a string of recalls of ranitidine, including Zantac, following a discovery of N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) contamination.

NDMA is ‘probably carcinogenic’, according to the World Health Organization, and can disrupt enzymes in the liver and damage DNA.

The US Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation and, since, makers of drugs containing ranitidine have been regularly announcing recalls around the world.

The pharmacy which first discovered the impurity said it was an ‘inherent instability’ and could affect all drugs containing ranitidine.

So far, regulators in the US, UK, Italy, France and Ireland have all announced recalls, while some pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn products around the world.

The indigestion tablets included Nexium, Prevacid, Protonix and Prilosec.

Dr Mina Tadrous, a scientist at the Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in Toronto, who was not involved in the study, said: ‘Very few people need to be on PPIs long term.

‘But people do end up on them chronically. And now we’re finding that the drugs are not as safe as we thought.

‘They interact with a bunch of drugs. There are some nutritional concerns. There’s an increased risk of fracture and an increased risk of infection.’

Dr Tadrous, who provided editorial as part of the study, added: ‘If you reduce acids, you change the intestinal flora [the beneficial bacteria in the gut known as the microbiome], making you more susceptible to infections.’ 

But experts have questioned the validity of the study and say the findings, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Dr Arun Swaminath, director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, was one of those to criticise the study methods.

He pointed out the researchers diagnosed someone with the stomach flu if they received a prescription for medications to treat it.

But those drugs are also doled out to treat other health woes, meaning the figures may have been skewed.

Another concern he raised is that the study only considered people to be on PPIs continuously if they had a prescription for them.

But the heartburn drugs are available over the counter, meaning many of those who did not contract the stomach bug may have been using them too. He added: ‘PPIs are available over the counter in France.

‘Assuming all patients who didn’t have a prescription for these medications weren’t exposed to PPI can make the magnitude of the association larger than it really it is.’


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