The Magic of Alka-Seltzer

May 12th, 2007 by Potato

Warning: the following post may contain information of a graphic and disgusting medical nature.

My parents, in the wisdom of keeping small children away from medication, have for decades stored almost all of our medicine in their bathroom. This is a bit of a pain now though, because it means I have to wake them (no matter how small a flashlight I bring and how softly I tiptoe) whenever I need something in the middle of the night. Usually, what I need is Alka-Seltzer for heartburn. I’ve tried, at various times in the past, pepto-bismol (the thick pink nature of it made me want to vomit), and a few other antacids (TUMs always sounded promising, with their use of calcium salts rather than sodium, but believe it or not I could never figure out how to take them — surely you don’t swallow that giant tablet whole, or chew it?), but Alka-Seltzer is always what I’ve come back to: it works pretty well for me, and pretty quickly. It does of course, have it’s own fairly nasty taste, but even as an extremely fussy child I could pinch my nose and get it down — at least it looks kinda like water.

Stuck as I was this last night with heartburn, no sleep in sight, and no desire to wake my parents (my dad has such trouble sleeping lately that it would be a sin), and no Alka-Seltzer, I decided to be creative. “What,” I asked myself, “was in Alka-Seltzer really? Just baking soda and aspirin, right? And the aspirin is an acid just there for pain relief — the antacid effect comes just from the sodium bicarbonate neutralizing the stomach acid…” So I got a glass of water, stirred in a spoonful of baking soda, and downed that. (Did I mention I was sleep deprived and not thinking too clearly?)

It tasted gross, even worse than Alka-Seltzer. Then pretty much immediately, I started foaming and puking. I had forgotten my grade 5 science fair volcano principles: baking soda, added to an acidic environment produces lava! Err… carbon dioxide, that is, which in a liquid — like vinegar in a volcano or stomach acid — produces a foamy, disgusting mess.

So, my chemistry lesson is that the fizz-fizz stage in Alka-Seltzer is really the sodium bicarbonate letting off the carbon dioxide so you don’t fizz up when you take it. The real antacid properties come from the reaction products left over (sodium citrate, sodium acetylsalicylate), the ones that bring the pH back up without producing gas.

• Aspirin 325 mg
• Heat treated sodium bicarbonate 1916 mg
• Citric acid 1000 mg
• Alka-Seltzer in water contains principally the antacid sodium citrate and the analgesic sodium acetylsalicylate.

One Response to “The Magic of Alka-Seltzer”

  1. Ben Says:

    Oh my god that was funny! I wish I could have been there to see that…