An ulcer in the stomach is primarily a result of an infection that occurs due to a germ which is known as Helicobacter pylori or H. pylori. This germ is a bacteria that triggers an infection in the digestive system. Usually, medications which are mainly acid suppressants take about four to eight weeks to treat stomach ulcers. Apart from this, certain antibiotics may also be prescribed to kill the bacteria causing the stomach ulcers. A complete course of antibiotics helps in ensuring the ulcers do not come back again. There are various causes of stomach ulcers including certain medicines taken for other diseases.
The Digestive System
What we consume passes into the stomach through a pipe known as the gullet or the esophagus. The stomach produces an acid as a part of the digestive process. The main aim of this acid is to digest the food. After the food is mixed with the juices in the stomach, it passes down to the first level of the small intestines. In the intestines, food mixes with certain enzymes which are secreted from the pancreas and from the cells within the intestines. These enzymes help in the breakdown of the food which eventually causes the body to absorb the food to release energy.
What Causes Stomach Ulcers?
The acids that the stomach produces as part of the digestive process also help in killing the germs inside the stomach and digestive organs. This acid could cause corrosion to the cells within the mucosa and in the duodenum. There is a mucus lining that protects the intestine and there is a natural balance maintained by the body in the acid levels and the mucus, which when disturbed could lead to an ulcer causing damage to the stomach or the intestines.
The changes in the balance of acid level and mucus could occur due to a number of reasons including the following:
- Bacterial infection: The leading cause of stomach ulcers in people is an infection caused by the bacteria H. pylori. A number of people could be affected by this bacteria at some point or the other in their lives. In a number of people, this bacteria just lives on without causing any significant harm, however sometimes this bacteria could result in swelling of the lining of the stomach (mucosa) or first part of the intestines (duodenum). This causes trouble with regards to the balance of the mucus barrier or the acid of the stomach, which in turn results in swelling and causing a stomach ulcer.
- Medications: Various medications particularly certain anti-inflammatory medications, also known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs could cause stomach ulcers for some people. There are a number of variants and brand names for these drugs including aspirin, ibuprofen, etc. These medications are recommended for a number of conditions including arthritis and various muscular aches and pains. Aspirin is also a medicine recommended for some people to prevent the formation of blood clots. In some cases, these medications could disturb the protective mucus lining in the stomach resulting in an ulcer. Around two out of 10 cases of stomach ulcers are caused due to the consumption of these drugs.
- Other factors: Most cases of stomach ulcers result due to the above two reasons only. However, there are certain rare factors that could result in stomach ulcers like Crohn’s disease which causes stomach ulcers, along with some issues of the gut.
How Can you Identify Signs of Stomach Ulcers?
There are various signs and symptoms of a stomach ulcer, but they could often be confused with other issues of the stomach. To confirm your stomach ulcer diagnosis, you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor for a definitive diagnosis.
Some of the symptoms of stomach ulcer may include:
- Pain: Stomach ulcer brings with it a shooting pain in the upper abdominal region, just a little below the breastbone. The pain usually comes and goes and may get better when you consume antacids. The pain could worsen at night causing even disturbed sleep.
- Bleeding: In some cases, a stomach ulcer could also result in some bleeding which could range from mild spotting to a hemorrhage. This could be a sign of a complication due to a stomach ulcer, which may need immediate medical attention.
- Other symptoms: There could be other symptoms that indicate stomach ulcers like bloating of the stomach, feeling weak or ill and a feeling of fullness after a meal.
- Perforation: In some cases, the ulcer perforates through the wall of the stomach which could cause a leakage in the abdomen and normally gives rise to a medical emergency.
Symptoms Suggesting a Dangerous Ulcer
You would need to visit a doctor immediately, if you notice any of these:
- Vomiting of blood which could be dark red blood or traces of blood
- Passing blood in stool in the form of dark, sticky stools
- A shooting pain in the abdomen that seems to be worsening
Diagnostic Tests to Identify Stomach Ulcers
Naming your symptoms alone is not enough to confirm the diagnosis of stomach ulcers. In these cases, the doctor may recommend a few tests like:
- Gastroscopy or endoscopy: An endoscopy may be carried out to locate the ulcer in the abdomen. A thin and flexible telescope is inserted down through the esophagus to trace the presence of any ulcers or swelling.
- Tracing the bacteria: There are lab tests which may be suggested to trace the presence of H. pylori bacteria. A stool test, blood test or a breath test may be prescribed to trace the bacterial infection in the body. In certain cases, a small sample may be taken from the endoscopy for laboratory testing for the presence of bacteria.
- Biopsies: Although the chance of an ulcer becoming cancerous is rare, in some cases, the tissues in and around the ulcer may be scraped to send for a biopsy to check for cancer.
How to Treat Stomach Ulcers?
Antacids or acid-suppressing medicines: There are medicines prescribed to reduce the impact of the acids in the stomach. This is normally a course administered for four to eight weeks.
The most common medications prescribed for reducing the amount of acids in the stomach is proton pump inhibitors that act upon the stomach cells to reduce the amount of acid produced.
Another class of medications prescribed to treat stomach ulcers is known as H2 blockers. The control of acid production is the best way for quick healing of the stomach ulcers.
- Antibiotics: When the cause of the stomach ulcer is learned to be the bacteria H. pylori, it is important to complete a course of antibiotics that kills the bacteria and prevents a recurrence of the infection. The antibiotic course is normally accompanied with acid suppressing medications to control the acid production in the stomach and help the ulcer heal faster.
- Surgery: Earlier, surgeries for stomach ulcers were seen commonly, but not anymore. These days, a surgery would be recommended only if absolutely necessary or in case of complicated stomach ulcers that involve bleeding or perforation.
- Natural foods: Foods like garlic, cranberry and probiotics found in fermented foods are highly recommended to be consumed to keep the digestive system functioning right. Hence, these items should be made a part of your everyday diet to fight and prevent the occurrence of stomach ulcers.