What over-the-counter (OTC) medications can I take for minor stomach upset and pain?

Candyce Collins, PharmD, is clinical pharmacist, Board-Certified in Ambulatory Care Pharmacy, and a Certified Anticoagulation Care Provider in Population Health Management at the Banner Corporate Center in Phoenix.

Question: What are some over-the-counter medications people can use to help alleviate minor stomach pains and disturbances?

Answer: Stomach problems are something we can all relate to, unfortunately. Heartburn, abdominal cramping, gas, bloating, and diarrhea, among other stomach disturbances, are very common and are some of the chief complaints for people buying over-the-counter (OTC) medications. There are many products on the market to treat symptoms of mild gastrointestinal disturbances. It is important to identify what type of relief you need so you can select the right product, and know when it’s time to see a doctor.

There are several OTC medications available that may effectively relieve the symptoms of following types of gastrointestinal disturbances:

  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Gas build up and bloating in the stomach and intestines
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramping

It is important to know what medication you are looking for to treat your specific symptoms so that you do not take any unnecessary medication. In addition, some of these OTC medications can interact with other prescription medications you may be taking or may not be recommended due to certain medical or health conditions. 

Below is a list of common OTC medications that can be effective in relieving stomach disturbances based on specific symptoms.

  • Antacids provide fast relief from heartburn (i.e. calcium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate).
  • H2 blockers offer relief from heartburn and can also prevent heartburn (i.e. ranitidine, famotidine, cimetidine).
  • Proton Pump Inhibitors help prevent heartburn, if it happens more than 2 times per week (i.e. omeprazole, lansoprazole, esomeprazole).
  • Simethicone relieves gas by speeding up the passage of gas through the intestine.
  • Alpha-galactosidase enzyme (Beano®) helps prevent gas when taken right before eating.
  • Laxatives relieve constipation by promoting bowl movements.

However, there are different types of laxatives – such as bulk-forming laxatives, osmotic laxatives, and stimulant laxatives – which can work in different ways, so be sure to talk to your pharmacist or physician to decide which type is right for you.

  • Docusate sodium is a stool softener used to prevent constipation or work with a laxative to make stool easier to pass.
  • Loperamide can relieve diarrhea.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate relieves diarrhea as well as symptoms from overeating, including heartburn, nausea, gas and upset stomach.

Make sure to read and understand the package instructions for the product you are taking.

If you have questions, your healthcare provider or a Banner Family Pharmacy pharmacist is a great resource for helping to understand which medication to take, as well as how and when to properly take these medications. If abdominal pain becomes worse despite OTC treatment, see your doctor right away, as it may be a sign of a more serious medical condition.

You should seek emergency medical attention if you experience blood in your vomit or stools or have difficulty breathing. Finally, talk to your health care provider before taking these OTC medications if you are pregnant and before administering to children younger than the age of 12.