Study: Over-the-Counter Heartburn Drugs May Help Treat COVID-19 – Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study suggests that famotidine, the active ingredient in heartburn medications, may reduce COVID-19 mortality risk.
  • More research is needed to confirm that famotidine would be a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19 patients.
  • Even with safe, effective vaccines available, more research on COVID-19 treatment is needed to help patients recover and prepare for future pandemics.

A recent study found that the active ingredient in heartburn medications—famotidine—may help treat people infected with COVID-19.

In the July study, which was published in Signal Transduction & Targeted Therapy, researchers analyzed 22,560 COVID-19 patients who were taking a type of medication called histamine antagonists. This type of drug is used to treat heartburn and several brands are available over-the-counter (OTC).

The researchers also looked at whether patients were taking other common OTC drugs aside from famotidine such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin), and aspirin.

After statistically analyzing the data, the researchers found that famotidine appeared to reduce the risk of death for 1,379 patients who were sick enough to require respiratory support .

The study also showed that combining famotidine with aspirin may decrease the relative risk for death by 32.5%.

While the study’s findings suggest that famotidine shows promise, more studies are needed to prove that it could be a safe and effective treatment for COVID patients.

Why Heartburn Medication?

“We, by no means, were the first to discover a link between heartburn medications and potential COVID treatments,” study author Cameron Mura, PhD, a senior scientist in the School of Data Science and department of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, tells Verywell.

A 2020 study showed that famotidine was associated with improved outcomes for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. However, another study that was published around the same time found the opposite, concluding that famotidine was associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease.

“We were intrigued that various reports—all clinical, patient-based—that had amassed in the literature over the past year started to paint a somewhat confusing picture,” Mura says. “Some reports found a beneficial association between famotidine and COVID, while others were less positive. This riddle, along with some initial statistical data we’d accumulated on a positive impact of famotidine in COVID, spurred us to look more closely at heartburn medications.”

The researchers used data from the COVID-19 Research Network, which allowed them to review the electronic health records of COVID patients from 30 countries, including a diverse pool of participants.

Why Might Famotidine Help?

Disease-causing organisms, called pathogens, sometimes trigger an overproduction of the proteins that regulate various inflammatory responses in the body (cytokines). This can lead to a potentially fatal surge of an immune response called a “cytokine storm” where the immune system damages even healthy tissues and organs.

Mura says that some of the destruction that COVID-19 causes in the body might be related to “a dysregulated ‘cytokine storm.'”

This occurs when a patient’s immune system “severely overreacts to an immunological challenge posed by an invader,” by flooding the body with cytokines. The “over-the-top cytokine response then wreaks havoc and destruction upon target tissues,” Mura adds.

The researchers theorize that famotidine might interfere with the body’s immune response by suppressing a cytokine storm. However, since other studies have shown that the drug offers no benefit or is even harmful to COVID-19 patients, more research is needed.

Why Do We Need Treatments If We Have Vaccines?

Although the COVID vaccines are extremely effective, researching potential treatments is still a necessity. New (or repurposed) treatments are not intended to replace vaccines; rather, they add another tool to the word’s COVID-19 arsenal by helping to reduce severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Helping Patients Recover

COVID-19 vaccines prevent infection to an extent, but people who are fully vaccinated can still get breakthrough infections—though they seem to be milder. Unvaccinated people run a high risk of getting sick and becoming seriously ill if they are infected.

Carlos Malvestutto, MD, MPH, infectious diseases physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Verywell that effective treatments help patients fight the virus, recover faster, and cut down on the time that they are able to infect others.

Malvestutto says that treatment research is especially important for “immunocompromised patients or patients taking immunosuppressive medications, who will not mount an adequate immune response to vaccines.”

Therefore, Malvestutto says that protecting vulnerable people means that we need researchers to work on “identifying medications that are effective for treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and post-exposure prophylaxis.”

Researchers around the world are studying potential antiviral treatment—whether something that is already being used to treat other conditions or is completely new and specifically designed for COVID-19.

“We must consider and evaluate all possible treatments whether they are repurposed or newly designed,” Malvestutto says. “Ideally, we should have multiple treatments that can be easily administered with proven safety and efficacy for COVID-19. We need medications that can be administered not just as IV infusions, but also as subcutaneous injections, inhaled, and orally that can be scaled up and made accessible to everyone around the world.”

Many COVID-19 treatment studies have looked at drug repurposing—a process for identifying new therapeutic uses for existing drugs—because it is faster and more cost-effective than making a completely new drug.

Whether a medication is old or new, it would still have to go through clinical trials, which is a crucial step in determining whether a treatment is safe and effective.

What This Means For You

Many oral medications have shown promise as potential treatments for COVID-19, but there is no conclusive evidence of their benefits. More research is needed to determine whether various drugs are safe and effective to give to people with COVID-19.

To Prepare For Future Pandemics

In June, the Biden Administration allocated $3 billion to the development of potential antiviral medicines. This money is not just for researching treatments for COVID-19, but for other high-risk viruses that could cause pandemics in the future.

Studying therapeutic agents for COVID-19 will help equip the world against present and future viral threats.

“We don’t know when the next pandemic will occur, and, most vexing, what form it might take,” Mura says. “Humanity still benefits by investing in studies of drugs against COVID-19. This is because all the ‘infrastructure’—the methodological frameworks, formalisms, computational pipelines, drug-discovery and repurposing platforms, and so on, which were developed and built to explore drugs against COVID-19—would still be relevant and applicable to the next disease. That capacity, in turn, would enable us to mount more rapid responses in future pandemics.”

Any scientific development from today could potentially be used again. Laying the groundwork now can help expedite future research.

“Developing robust repurposing approaches is analogous to the role of mRNA vaccines as a new approach to vaccine development,” Mura says. “Now that we have the technology, it can be deployed more rapidly and effectively in future outbreaks.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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