Stomach ulcers are painful sores that can be found in the stomach lining or small intestine. Stomach ulcers are the most visible sign of peptic ulcer disease. They occur when the thick layer of mucus that protects your stomach from digestive juices is reduced, thus enabling the digestive acids to eat away at the lining tissues of the stomach. Stomach ulcers are easily cured, but they can become severe without proper treatment.
Stomach ulcers aren’t necessarily caused by one single factor. The decrease in the stomach’s mucus lining that leads to an ulcer is usually caused by one of the following:
- an infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
- long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen
- excess acid (hyperacidity) in the stomach, which may be related to genetics, lifestyle (stress, smoking), and certain foods
- Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, a rare disease that makes the body produce excess stomach acid
Certain factors and behaviors can put you at higher risk for developing stomach ulcers:
- 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
A number of symptoms are associated with stomach ulcers. The severity of the symptoms depends on the severity of the ulcer.The most common symptom is a burning sensation or pain in the area between your chest and belly button. Normally, the pain will be more intense when your stomach is empty and it can last for a few minutes or several hours.Other common symptoms include:
- dull pain in the stomach
- weight loss
- not wanting to eat because of pain
- nausea or vomiting
- burping or acid reflux
- heartburn (burning sensation in the chest)
- pain improves when you eat, drink, or take antacids
Talk to your doctor if you experience symptoms of a stomach ulcer. Even though discomfort may be mild, ulcers can worsen if they aren’t treated.
Diagnosis and treatment will depend on your symptoms and the severity of your ulcer. 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. To rule out H. pylori infection, a blood, stool, or breath test may be ordered. In a breath test, you’ll be instructed to drink a clear liquid and breathe into a bag, which is then sealed. If H. pylori is present, the breath sample will contain higher-than-normal levels of carbon dioxide.
Treatment will vary depending on the cause of your ulcer. Most ulcers can be treated with a prescription from your doctor, but in rare cases, surgery may be required. It’s important to promptly treat an ulcer. Talk to your doctor to discuss a treatment plan. If you have an actively bleeding ulcer, you’ll likely be hospitalized for intensive treatment with IV ulcer medications, and you may also require blood transfusion.
To prevent the spread of bacteria and reduce risk of bacterial infection, wash your hands with soap and water on a regular basis. Make sure all food is properly cleaned and cooked thoroughly. Certain lifestyle changes can also help prevent ulcers from forming. Limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding tobacco products, and properly managing stress can all contribute to a healthy stomach lining.