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Over-the-Counter Antacids: How Much Is Too Much?

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Ever get that burning sensation in your chest, like someone lit a match behind your breastbone?

You are probably one of the 15 million Americans who suffer from acid reflux every day. Acid reflux is when acidic substances in your stomach come up into the esophagus. The result can be a mild to intense burning in the stomach, chest or throat.

The most common way to keep acid reflux at bay is to take over-the-counter antacids, but how much is too much?

Dr. Anish Sheth, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Yale University, says antacid overdose is seldom a problem for most Americans.

“The main concern is developing electrolyte abnormalities like hypercalcemia from ingesting too much calcium,” Sheth told FoxNews.com.

Hypercalcemia, or an overabundance of calcium in your blood, can cause constipation, abdominal pain, excessive thirst and nausea, according to the Mayo Clinic web site. These symptoms typically occur in severe cases only.

Over-the-counter antacids come in pills, chewable tablets, powders, liquid and chewing gum that neutralize acid in the esophagus. They are the safest way to subdue symptoms of heartburn; just pay close attention to the directions and dosage on the label, Sheth said.

“They are good because they work quickly and are OK for people who have infrequent symptoms, like after a big meal or drinking binge,” Sheth said.

If you’re not into popping antacid pills all day, there are other lifestyle changes that can lessen the frequency of heartburn. Diet plays a big role in the frequency and severity of heartburn. Avoiding certain foods like tomato products, caffeine, chocolate and alcohol can help. Losing weight may also benefit a patient suffering from acid reflux.

But for some people, over-the-counter medications and changes in lifestyle don’t provide enough relief.

“For people who have symptoms more than 2-3 times per week, stronger medications, which decrease the acidity of stomach juices, are better,” Sheth said. “Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prevacid and Prilosec are the strongest medications and resolve symptoms in a majority of patients.”

Acid reflux can be a particularly bothersome medical condition because it often tends to be chronic, affecting some people on a daily basis. But at what point do heartburn sufferers need to see a gastroenterologist about their condition?

“If you have worsening symptoms despite taking medications, are older than 50, or a family history of esophageal cancer, you should see your doctor,” he said.

Other red flag symptoms include trouble swallowing, weight loss or irregular bleeding.