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Can a Heartburn Medicine Help Your COVID Symptoms?

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Lara Antal / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • A common over-the-counter medication used to treat heartburn may help people with COVID-19 feel better faster.
  • In a recent study, COVID patients were assigned to take either Pepcid (famotidine) or a placebo. The patients that took the heartburn medicine had lower levels of inflammation and felt better sooner than the patients that got a placebo.
  • While the findings are interesting, the study only included 55 people. Experts say it’s too soon to tell whether famotidine could be a possible COVID treatment.

New research has found a surprising reason that some COVID-19 patients may start to feel better sooner than others.

Famotidine, better known as Pepcid, is a common over-the-counter treatment for heartburn. It might also help ease COVID symptoms—but how?

Researchers randomized 55 non-vaccinated people with COVID-19 and had them take either a placebo or 80 milligrams of famotidine three times a day.

Each person also had their blood taken and had nasal swab tests to check for COVID.

The results of the randomized, double-blind clinical trial were published in the journal Gut.

The Results

The lab test results showed that inflammation levels in people who took famotidine cleared up faster than they did in people who took a placebo.

Compared to the placebo group, the people who took famotidine also reported that their COVID symptoms, like chest congestion, cough, and abdominal pain, improved sooner.

The famotidine group felt 50% better in about 8.2 days. The average for the placebo group was 11.4 days.

The researchers concluded that “famotidine was safe and well-tolerated in outpatients with mild to moderate COVID-19."

The study demonstrated that “famotidine led to earlier resolution of symptoms and inflammation without reducing anti-SARS-CoV-2 immunity,” but the authors acknowledged that “additional randomized trials are required” to understand why.

Why Famotidine?

At first glance, it might not make sense to use anti-heartburn medication to treat COVID. However, if you think about how the drug works to relieve heartburn, the connection becomes a little easier to see.

Jamie Alan, PhD, PharmD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, told Verywell that “famotidine blocks a type of histamine receptor found in your stomach" and that the same type of receptor “is involved in acid production.”

Famotidine (Pepcid)

Famotidine is an over-the-counter (OTC) medication that’s used to treat heartburn. It reduces how much acid your stomach makes.

Study coauthor Tobias Janowitz, MD, PhD, assistant professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, told Verywell that previous studies have shown that famotidine seems to lower the inflammation caused by COVID because it blocks a specific molecular pathway.

Janowitz and colleagues decided to look at famotidine’s potential action in COVID patients because “there was evidence from retrospective studies and from a case series that famotidine may have an effect.”

However, Janowitz also noted that the results of those studies “were not obtained using randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trials.”

Since randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trials are the research gold standard, Janowitz wanted to see what would happen if his team studied famotidine in a more thorough way.

The Role of Inflammation

The potential for famotidine to help COVID patients comes back to inflammation.

According to Janowitz, “increased inflammation causes symptoms [of COVID-19] and resolution of inflammation was strongly correlated with symptom resolution.”

Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Verywell that since famotidine is an antihistamine, it ”could potentially play a role in blocking interferons.”

Interferons

Interferons are released by cells that have been infected with a virus. They can lead to inflammation.

Russo—who was not involved in the study—said that antiviral medications have been shown to be more effective at fighting COVID—especially in earlier stages of the infection.

“Early on, it’s about getting rid of the virus, and anti-viral medications have been shown to be the most beneficial,” said Russo, adding that “it’s possible that modulating inflammation may decrease symptoms more rapidly.”

At this point, it’s unclear whether famotidine would work in more severe cases of COVID. While Janowitz said it could potentially help, the problem is that they have no data to prove it.

Should You Take Famotidine If You Get COVID?

Experts are hesitant to recommend famotidine as a COVID treatment. If you get COVID, should you reach for the heartburn med? Alan said that “it’s a bit too soon to say.”

“There’s really not enough to unequivocally feel that it will decrease symptoms for individuals,” said Russo, though he added that the findings of the research may warrant a larger study.

Janowitz agreed, pointing out that the study showed “sufficient indication that follow-up trials may be justified.”

Thomas Russo, MD

It’s over-the-counter, so everyone can pick it up, but we don’t have unequivocal evidence at this point that it’s going to be necessary.

— Thomas Russo, MD

While famotidine “led to earlier resolution of inflammation and symptoms in mildly to moderately affected non-hospitalized patients with Covid-19,” Janowitz acknowledged that “larger phase 3 trials are required.”

Russo said that it’s understandable that people are interested in having famotidine as a possible COVID treatment.

“It’s over-the-counter, so everyone can pick it up,” said Russo, “But we don’t have unequivocal evidence at this point that it’s going to be necessary.”

If you’re still wondering if you should head to your medicine cabinet, Alan said that for most people, “it will not harm you to take famotidine.”

What This Means For You

Famotidine shows some promise in clearing up symptoms of mild COVID-19 in patients faster than a placebo. However, experts caution that more research is needed before you should actually try this.

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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  1. Brennan CM, Nadella S, Zhao X, et al. Oral famotidine versus placebo in non-hospitalised patients with COVID-19: a randomised, double-blind, data-intense, phase 2 clinical trialGut. Published online February 10, 2022. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2022-326952