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This Over-The-Counter Drug Might Double Your COVID-19 Risk

More than 15 million Americans take this over-the-counter drug.
woman with medicine jars at home

After six months of studying COVID-19, experts have put together an extensive list of risk factors for the highly infectious and potentially deadly virus. Things like age, gender, race, socioeconomic group, and pre-existing conditions can all come into play when it comes to a person's chances of testing positive for, and even dying from, coronavirus. Now, researchers claim there is another risk factor that can double your chances of getting coronavirus, in the form of an incredibly common, over-the-counter drug. 

"A Strong, Independent Effect"

According to a study, published Tuesday in pre-print form in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, those who take proton pump inhibitor (PPI) medications—including Prilosec and Nexium—are two times as likely to get the virus than those who do not. 

A group of researchers led by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Dr. Brennan Spiegel examined data from an online survey of over 86,000 people. 53,000 of them reported abdominal pain or discomfort, acid reflux, heartburn or regurgitation, and answered a series of questions related to the medications they took to treat their symptoms. 

Of the group, over 3,300 tested positive for COVID-19. Upon analyzing the data, researchers learned that those who took PPI medications to remedy their heartburn were two to four times more likely to test positive for the virus compared to those who used other medications or none at all. They also found a link between how much of the medication was used. Those who took the medication twice a day were at a greater risk of infection than those who took them once.

"We found a strong, independent effect of using PPIs on risk of COVID-19, including a dose-response relationship with nearly a four-fold increased risk for twice daily dosing," explained Dr. Spiegel in a press release

Makes Stomach More Open to Pathogens

Dr. Spiegel points out that this isn't the first time the drug has been linked to higher risk of infections in other infections, including C.difficile. He explains that this is due to the fact that the drug reduces stomach acid—which is one of the body's tools in fighting off harmful bacteria and viruses. He added that altering the gut, which heartburn medication can do, makes the area more susceptible to the virus. 

"There is a reason we have acid in our stomach, namely, to kill pathogens before they enter the digestive tract," commented Dr. Spiegel. "Coronaviruses are easily destroyed at a gastric pH of less than 3, but survive in a more neutral pH, including the range created by drugs like omeprazole and esomeprazole."

Keep in mind that your overall increase in terms COVID-19 infection risk is still small, and researchers point out that prevention methods—such as handwashing, social distancing, and mask wearing—have a greater impact on your chances of getting the virus. If you are taking PPIs you don't immediately have to stop taking them, but you might want to speak with your doctor about other options or possibly lowering your dose. You might also consider taking other acid-controlling drugs—for example H2 blockers like Pecid and Zantac—that weren't found to pose any additional risk. "We found no relationship with the less powerful H2RAs, such as famotidine or cimetidine," Spiegel pointed out. 

And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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