Ulcers, also known as peptic ulcers, are painful sores that develop in the stomach lining or small intestine. Ulcers can occur in areas where acid or enzymes are present. Once thought to be caused by stress and acid buildup, now research has found the primary cause is a bacterial infection.

What are ulcers?

Ulcers can happen anywhere in your intestine. The most common type of ulcers are:

  • Gastric ulcers: A common type of ulcer that develops in the inside of your stomach.
  • Duodenal ulcers: These are located at the beginning of the small intestine, sometimes called the small bowel or duodenum.
  • Esophageal ulcers: These occur inside the esophagus, the tube that carries food from your throat to your stomach.

Unfortunately, you can have more than one kind of peptic ulcer at the same time. Without proper treatment, ulcers can cause severe pain and damage. Fortunately, ulcers can be treated easily.

There are factors and behaviors that can increase the risk of developing stomach ulcers. You might have higher risk of ulcer if you are:

  • Smoking;
  • Frequent use of steroids (such as those for treating asthma);
  • Hypercalcemia (overproduction of calcium);
  • Family history of stomach ulcers;
  • Being over 50 years old;
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol.

What are the symptoms of ulcers?

While a number of symptoms are associated with ulcers, these symptoms may or may not be present. The more severe the ulcers, the worse these symptoms will affect you. The most common symptom for ulcers is a burning and pain feeling at the top or center of your abdomen depend on where the ulcer is. The pain may increase when your stomach is empty and get better once you have eaten.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Dull pain in the stomach;
  • Not wanting to eat because of pain;
  • Nausea or vomiting;
  • Bloating;
  • Burping or acid reflux;
  • Heartburn (burning sensation in the chest);
  • Pain improves when you eat, drink, or take antacids;
  • Nausea;
  • Unexplained weight loss.

In severe cases, ulcers can cause bleeding. You may find the dark or black stool, or vomiting blood that looks like coffee ground. The bleeding may happen over time or occur suddenly, leading to life-threatening hemorrhaging.

When the bleeding occur through a long period of time, you may have chronic, low grade blood lost. Often, you will only notice a bleeding ulcer when you become anemic.

What causes ulcers?

Ulcers are caused by the thinning of the mucus lining of your intestine. The function of this mucus is to protect the intestine wall from stomach acid. When the mucus is not there, the intestine wall may be damaged from the acid. There may be more than one factor that causes this problem:

  • A bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).
  • Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
  • Excess acid (hyperacidity) in the stomach. This can be from genetics, lots of stress, smoking, and certain foods, such as alcohol.
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, a rare disease when the body makes too much stomach acid.
  • Radiation treatment to the abdominal area can lead to ulcers.

How are ulcers diagnosed?

To diagnose a stomach ulcer, your doctor will review your medical history along with your symptoms and any prescription or over-the-counter medications you’re taking.

You doctor may ask you to take a breath test, a blood test or stool test to rule out H. pylori infection.

For a breath test, you’ll be instructed to drink a clear liquid and breathe into a bag, which is then sealed. Doctors will read the result base on the level of carbon dioxide measured in the bag. If H. pylori are present, the breath sample will contain higher-than-normal levels of carbon dioxide.

Other tests and procedures used to diagnose stomach ulcers include:

  • Barium X-ray: You will be instructed to drink a white liquid (barium liquid) to help the stomach and small intestine show up on X-rays.
  • Endoscopy: The physician will insert a thin, lighted tube through your mouth and into the stomach to look for the presence of an ulcer.
  • Endoscopic biopsy: The physician will remove a piece of stomach tissue to be analyzed.

How do you treat ulcers?

Stomach ulcers are easily treated with medication and surgery. Most cases of ulcers only required medication treatment. In severe cases, surgery is required to remove the ulcer. If your ulcer has resulted of H. pylori, you will need to take antibiotics.

For mild to moderate ulcers, your doctor will usually prescribe the following medications:

  • H2 blockers, also known as acid reducers, will prevent the level of acid in the stomach from being too high for patients with hyperacidity.
  • Proton pump inhibitors will inhibit the function of acid producing cells.
  • Over-the-counter antacids to balance the acid level in your stomach.
  • Cytoprotective agents, such as Pepto-Bismol, will protect the wall of the stomach and small intestine.

Remember to take the full course of your medication even after the symptoms have disappeared. This is especially important for H. pylori infections to ensure that all bacteria are destroyed.

For active bleeding ulcer, you will need to be hospitalized for extensive care and a blood transmission. The surgery will involve cutting off the ulcer and tying off any bleeding artery, or cutting off the nerve to the stomach to reduce production of stomach acid.

What are some tips to prevent ulcers?

A healthy lifestyle is a key to good health. Limit your alcohol consumption and avoid tobacco, having a good stress management system can reduce the risk of ulcers. To prevent the bacteria and bacterial infection, wash your hands regularly. Make sure to clean and cook all food thoroughly.

To prevent ulcers caused by NSAIDs, limit the use of these medications. If you need to take NSAIDs, follow the recommended dosage be sure to follow the recommended dosage and avoid alcohol while taking these medications.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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