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What Is a Stomach Ulcers?
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.
What Causes Stomach Ulcers?
No single cause has been found for ulcers. However, it is now clear that an ulcer is the end result of an imbalance between digestive fluids in the stomach and duodenum. Most ulcers are caused by an infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).
Factors that can increase your risk for ulcers include:
- Use of painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprosyn, and others), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, some types of Midol, and others), and many others available by prescription; even safety-coated aspirin and aspirin in powered form can frequently cause ulcers.
- Excess acid production from gastrinomas, tumors of the acid producing cells of the stomach that increases acid output (seen in Zollinger-
- Ellison syndrome)
- Excessive drinking of alcohol
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Serious illness
- Radiation treatment to the area
Symptoms of Stomach Ulcers
The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is a burning or gnawing pain that develops in your abdomen (tummy).
However, some stomach ulcers aren’t painful and are only noticed when a complication of a stomach ulcer develops, such as bleeding from the ulcer.
The pain caused by a stomach ulcer can travel out from the middle of your tummy up to your neck, down to your belly button, or through to your back.
It can last from a few minutes to a few hours and often starts within a few hours of eating. You may also wake up in pain during the night.
Taking antacids (indigestion medication) may relieve the pain temporarily, but it will keep coming back if the ulcer isn’t treated.
Less common symptoms of a stomach ulcer can include:
- loss of appetite
- feeling and being sick
- weight loss
Some people also find they burp or become bloated after eating fatty foods.
Treatment and Medication
Treatment of stomach ulcers consists of killing H. pylori and decreasing the amount of acid in the stomach. This requires several types of medications.
Physicians may prescribe several antibiotics at once, or use a combination drug such as Helidac to kill H. pylori. Helidac contains two antibiotics along with an acid-reducing drug and a medication that protects stomach tissue.
The doctors will also try to stop other medications the patient is taking and might have a role in worsening the ulcers.
“Most of the time, we try to withdraw the offending medication, but that is not always possible, for example patients on aspirin who have heart arrhythmias, or recent heart stents,” Swaminath said.
“We put patients on high doses of the drug for eight weeks by which time the area will typically heal,” Swaminath said. “A low dose is continued indefinitely if the offending medication can’t be discontinued.”
Drugs called acid blockers (for example, Pepcid) and antacids may be recommended to decrease the levels of stomach acid. Other medicines, called proton pump inhibitors, such as Prilosec and Prevacid, are another option. They work by blocking cellular pumps that release acid into the stomach.
Prevention of Stomach Ulcers
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.
To prevent ulcers caused by NSAIDs, stop using these medications (if possible) or limit their use. If you need to take NSAIDs, be sure to follow the recommended dosage and avoid alcohol while taking these medications.
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.