05/24/2013 10:40 am ET Updated May 24, 2013

Heartburn And Throat Cancer: Is There A Link?

Heartburn may raise a person's risk for throat cancer, but it seems that antacids could have a protective effect, according to a new study.

The research, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, shows that people with a history of frequent heartburn, also known as acid reflux, have a 78 percent higher risk of developing vocal cord or throat cancers.

But they also found that for people with frequent heartburn, taking antacids can lower risk of these cancers by 41 percent.

"Additional studies are needed to validate the chemopreventive effects of antacids among patients with frequent heartburn," study researcher Scott M. Langevin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University, said in a statement. "The identification of gastric reflux as a risk factor for throat and vocal cord cancers, however, may have implications in terms of risk stratification and identification of high-risk patients."

The study included 631 people who were part of a case-control study in Boston, 468 of whom had throat cancer and 163 of whom had vocal cord cancer, as well as 1,234 people with no cancer history. Researchers analyzed family history of cancer, smoking history and drinking history of all the study participants, as well as presence of HPV 16 viral protein antigens since HPV can cause some head and neck cancers.

Researchers found that the increased risk for throat and vocal cord cancers was higher among the people experiencing frequent heartburn, even when they had no history of smoking or drinking. Also, prescription drugs or home remedies didn't seem to be protective against the increased cancer risk from heartburn.

"Our data show that gastric reflux is an independent risk factor for squamous cancers of the pharynx and larynx," researchers wrote in the study. "Further studies are needed to clarify the possible chemopreventive role of antacid use for patients with gastric reflux."

However, it's important to note that long-term antacid use doesn't come without risks. Everyday Health reported that chronic use of over-the-counter antacids may raise esophageal cancer risk. And a type of gastroesophageal reflux disease medicine called proton-pump inhibitors may weaken bone density; therefore, people with heartburn who are taking antacids should talk to their doctors about the best options for them.

In a Q&A in the Chicago Tribune, the Mayo Clinic noted that antacids should usually only be used for short amounts of time. And of course, the best way to avoid all these risks -- both of heartburn and of long-term antacid use -- is to try to solve the root of the heartburn.



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