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Should pregnant women avoid heartburn medication?

Mary is a writer living in the Midwest with her husband, Chris, and her two daughters. Mary loves to write about all of the things she loves the most: motherhood, marriage, food, current events and really great books.

New study suggests certain heartburn medications may be linked to childhood asthma

During my first two pregnancies, I had mild heartburn, which I treated with Tums and by avoiding spicy foods. My third pregnancy, however, was a completely different story. By week 16, I was experiencing indigestion so intense, it was triggering my gag reflex and I threw up daily. In desperation, I turned to Zantac, an over-the-counter drug that my OB-GYN suggested as a safe treatment option.

Now, even though my son is 4 months old and perfectly healthy, I can't help but worry. According to a new study released by The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, I may have put my son at risk for childhood asthma.

Heartburn is one of the most commonly experienced symptoms of pregnancy. In fact, over half of women report experiencing indigestion during their pregnancy and it most frequently occurs during the second and third trimesters. Heartburn occurs because the progesterone hormone causes the valve between the stomach and the esophagus to relax, which allows stomach acid into the esophagus, according to American Pregnancy.

For some women, an over-the-counter or prescription medication is the only way to find relief from the discomfort caused by their heartburn and indigestion. Now, the results of a new study by the University of Edinburgh suggest that these same medications may be linked to childhood asthma.

H2-receptor antagonists and proton pump inhibitors like Zantac and Prilosec are commonly prescribed by doctors to women experiencing severe heartburn symptoms since previous research has found them to be safe for pregnant women and the unborn children. After conducting a survey of the health records of over 1.3 million children, the findings of this study raise the question of whether or not medications like these are as safe as originally thought. In fact, the children whose mothers reported taking heartburn medication during pregnancy were a third more likely to develop asthma during childhood.

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These statistics seem alarming, especially for mothers who took heartburn medication during a past pregnancy and are concerned they have put their child at risk, but Dr. Angela Jones, board-certified OB-GYN, thinks it’s important to understand the entire study before allowing ourselves to become anxious about the outcome.

“What strikes me most is that one of the study's authors clearly states, 'It is important to stress that this association does not prove that the medicines caused asthma in these children,’” Jones pointed out. “Further research needs to be done before such strong conclusions can be made.”

Essentially, just because two things happen at the same time, that doesn't mean one causes the other. There could be an unrevealed cause for asthma that has nothing to do with heartburn medication, but more research needs to be done to figure out what that cause could be.

For mothers who would prefer to move forward with caution, avoiding these medications altogether, Jones recommended more conservative treatment methods.

Eat small meals: Instead of eating three large meals, Jones advises that pregnant women eat more frequently and in small amounts to avoid indigestion.

Avoid certain foods: Fried or fatty foods can trigger heartburn. Pregnant moms: Ignore those late-night cravings for pizza.

Avoid drinking during meals: Pregnant women should focus on staying hydrated before and after meals. During meals, drinking too much can actually cause over-distention of the stomach, which can make heartburn much worse.

Sleep upright: When you have heartburn, gravity is your friend. Sleep propped up on pillows in bed. If you're really uncomfortable, try sleeping sitting up on a couch or in an armchair.

Don't eat before bed: Your body needs plenty of time to digest the food you eat before you go to bed. Avoid eating before bed — wait a few hours after meals before settling in for the night.

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Try Tums: It's OK to take Tums during pregnancy, so they can be used for symptom control on a regular basis. If you find you are overdoing it, taking more than the suggested dosage, it might be time to consider other options.

Above all else, Jones stresses that moms shouldn't let these study results prevent them from at least talking to their doctors about H2-blockers and proton pump inhibitors. If none of the conservative methods listed above are working, your doctor can carefully walk you through the risks and benefits of different heartburn medications, allowing you to make an informed decision.

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