Spicy foods and stress can aggravate stomach ulcer symptoms. But what causes ulcers is an infection that often clears up with antibiotics.
More than 25 million Americans will suffer from a stomach ulcer at some point during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is an ulcer?
Normally, a thick layer of mucus protects your stomach from digestive juices, which are acidic. If you don’t have enough mucus, your stomach acid attacks the tissues that line your stomach or duodenum (the first part of your small intestine), and you’ll develop a hole or sore — also known as a peptic ulcer.
Spicy foods and stress can make the signs of an ulcer worse. But they don’t cause the hole.
What causes ulcers?
The real culprit is a bacterium called helicobacteror (H.) pylori. It causes more than 90 percent of duodenal ulcers and up to 80 percent of gastric ulcers (in the stomach).
Taking too many aspirin or NSAID painkillers like ibuprofen and naproxen can also damage your stomach and cause ulcers.
Stomach ulcer symptoms
The most common stomach ulcer symptom is a dull burning sensation in the middle of your abdomen. It usually peaks when you don’t have food in your stomach, often early in the morning. The pain may last from minutes to hours and may go away if you eat or take antacids.
You might also frequently have heartburn, bloating, burping, or constantly feel full. If you often take antacids and the pain keeps coming back, you need to see a doctor.
Your stomach lining may become inflamed, which can trigger contractions and make you nauseated. You might even vomit.
Sometimes people vomit for no clear reason even if they don’t have an ulcer, so don’t rush to conclusions. But do get checked out. An untreated ulcer can have serious complications.
Some stomach ulcer symptoms indicate you need urgent care. If your ulcer bleeds, you might vomit blood or digested blood. You may also see blood or blackness in your poop.
If the sore has eaten through your bowel wall, the pain can be intense and you might feel it in your back or chest. If the lining of your stomach splits, the pain will be sudden, severe, and get worse and you need emergency care.
Stomach ulcer treatment
Blood, breath, and stool tests can check for H. pylori. If the bacteria show up on a test, you’ll receive antibiotics for about two weeks. You’ll also often take acid-lowering drugs called proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers.
If you have symptoms of a stomach ulcer but H. pylori doesn’t show up on a test, you may need an upper endoscopy, a procedure in which your gastroenterologist looks at your stomach walls to see if you might need surgery.
How to prevent ulcers
About 30 to 40 percent of people in the United States get an H. pylori infection, usually as children, but it often doesn’t cause symptoms.
Researchers don’t know how H. pylori is passed along or why it causes stomach ulcer symptoms in some people but not others.
The best prevention is to wash your hands after using the toilet and before eating and to drink safe, clean water.
You also shouldn’t rely on NSAIDs for long periods and look for other ways to handle pain.
June 29, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN