If you’ve ever had a stomach ulcer, you know they’re not fun. If you haven’t had an ulcer, you may think that they’re caused by eating too many spicy foods or working in a stressful career. The reality is that 1 in 10 people are likely to develop a peptic ulcer in their lifetime, so you should know the risk factors and symptoms.
What Is an Ulcer?
A peptic ulcer is a type of open sore that can develop in the lining of the stomach, small intestine, or esophagus. A peptic ulcer located in the stomach is referred to as a stomach ulcer, or sometimes a gastric ulcer.
Contrary to popular belief, stomach ulcers are not caused by either stress or by eating spicy foods, although both of these may irritate a peptic ulcer.
Most often, ulcers are caused by one of two things:
- A Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterial infection or
- Because of the long-term use of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as naproxen sodium (Aleve), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or aspirin.
About 50% of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori, and it’s estimated to be present is 30%-40% of Americans. However, only 10-15% of people with an H. pylori infection end up developing an ulcer. It’s unclear why some people experience no ill effects from the bacterium and others end up producing ulcerations.
Repeated use of NSAIDs can erode the lining of the stomach if they’re not carefully monitored. People with the highest risk of ulcers are those who have an H. pylori infection and who also use NSAIDs on a regular basis.
Smoking and drinking alcohol can also increase your risk of developing peptic ulcers by eroding the lining of your stomach or aggravating existing ulcers.
What Does a Stomach Ulcer Feel Like?
The most common symptom of a gastric ulcer is a burning pain in the stomach. This pain often comes and goes, but it is usually strongest when your stomach is empty (between meals or at night), lasts anywhere from minutes and hours, and recurs over a period of days, weeks, or even months. Typically, this pain is briefly lessened by eating, drinking milk, or taking antacids, but it always returns.
However, some people may not experience this symptom, and instead may experience one or more of the following symptoms: heartburn, indigestion, burping, bloating, poor appetite, feeling sick to your stomach, sour stomach, or vomiting. If you have any of the above symptoms, you may have a peptic ulcer, even if your symptoms aren’t severe. The long-term effects of these symptoms can take a toll on your body and drastically reduce your quality of life.
How to Treat Stomach Ulcers?
It is important to get treatment for a stomach ulcer because they can worsen if ignored. Peptic ulcers can lead to internal bleeding, a perforation (hole) in your stomach, an obstruction in your digestive tract, or even stomach cancer.
If you experience sharp, sudden stomach pain that doesn’t go away; trouble breathing; unexplained weight loss; bloody, dark, or tarry stools; or are vomiting blood or what looks like coffee grounds, you should see a doctor immediately. Any of these symptoms could indicate that the ulcer has caused a more serious problem.
A gastroenterologist at Digestive Health Centers can help diagnose and treat peptic ulcers. They can use endoscopic equipment to confirm a diagnosis of peptic ulcers and to determine your best course of treatment. While performing an upper endoscopy, your physician can see irregularities in the lining of your stomach and even take samples to test for H. pylori infection.
Heliobacter pylori can be successfully treated with antibiotics, and an acid reducer (PPI) may also be prescribed to allow the ulcers to heal. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a pain reliever that can be used in place of NSAIDs if your ulcers are caused by an overuse of pain relievers.
If you choose to seek treatment at Digestive Health Centers, a board certified, fellowship-trained gastroenterologist can help you repair your stomach and ease the pain caused by ulcers. Contact us today to begin your recovery!