Many people experience the fiery chest pain of heartburn or the chronic bitter taste in the mouth or burning sensation in the throat when waking up in the morning.  For them, these conditions are a daily trial and they often turn to antacids to douse these maladies.  Although generally effective and safe for occasional use, antacids do have side effects that you need to know about.

Antacids are sold over the counter under many brand names and are available in chewable, liquid, and tablet form.  Doctors say that all of them work by neutralizing gastroesophageal reflux disease (commonly known as GERD), which occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus and causes that burning sensation in the chest.  For the fastest relief, liquid products are probably the best choice, although all forms work relatively quickly, quelling symptoms in a matter of minutes.

Health experts say that when used only occasionally or on a short-term basis, antacids usually pose no risk, but sometimes they cause more problems than they solve.  Because they contain different active ingredients, each type may affect you differently.  If, for instance, you find that relief is only temporary and that your heartburn returns with a vengeance in an hour or so, you may be suffering from acid rebound.  According to medical experts, this condition sometimes occurs when your antacid contains large amounts of calcium carbonate or sodium bicarbonate.  The solution may be as simple as switching to a different antacid.

It is important to be aware of the side effects caused by the four common antacids:

1. Aluminum compounds (Amphojel, Rolaids).  These antacids are effective at providing relief, though slower-acting than some other antacids.  Frequent use often causes constipation.  Long-term use may also promote mineral deficiencies, particularly of calcium.  There is some evidence that increased aluminum intake may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

2. Calcium carbonate (Calcium-Rich Rolaids, Titralac, Tums).  Quick relief is provided by the high calcium content of these antacids.  They can be taken daily.  But for some people, daily use may cause severe constipation.  Also may cause acid rebound.  There is some evidence that excess calcium may promote the formation of kidney stones or impair kidney function.

3. Magnesium compounds (Gaviscon, Maalox, Mylanta, Riopan).  These antacids provide quick relief.  They may have a laxative effect, except when mixed with other ingredients.  Products often include aluminum or calcium to offset the laxative effect of the magnesium, but these minerals may also cause adverse effects.  This group of antacids is not recommended for people with kidney disease.  Use among elderly people, particularly those with diabetes, may result in hypertension and/or cardiac problems.

4. Sodium bicarbonate (Alka Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer, Rolaids).  The main ingredient, baking soda, provides quick relief, but these antacids should be limited to short-term use.  Taken too often, these antacids may cause kidney and heart malfunction, an increase in urinary tract infections, and disruption of the body’s mineral balance.  Their high sodium content may also make them dangerous for those who have high blood pressure or who are on a sodium-restricted diet.

Experts warn not to take antacids if you have chronic, severe heartburn.  You may mask a condition that should be treated by a doctor.  When left untreated, chronic heartburn can eventually lead to ulceration and bleeding of the esophagus, breathing difficulties, and even esophageal cancer.