Ulcers are sores on the lining of your digestive tract. They commonly occur in the stomach and the first part of the intestine called the duodenum (do-oh-dee’-num), although they can occur anywhere in the digestive tract.
Most stomach ulcers are caused by an infection called Helicobacter pylori (heel’-eh-ko-back-ter pie’-lore-ee”), or H. pylori for short. Your doctor can determine if you have H. pylori with a blood test or by taking a sample of your breath. Acid and other juices made by the stomach can contribute to ulcers by burning the lining of your digestive tract. This can happen if your body makes too much acid or if the lining of your digestive tract is damaged in some way.
Physical or emotional stress may not necessarily cause an ulcer, but it can aggravate an ulcer if you have one. Ulcers can also be caused by anti-inflammatory medicines, like Advil, Motrin and Alleve and their prescription counterparts, like Ketoprofen and Naprosyn. Smoking and drinking alcohol also contribute to ulcer formation.
Ulcers are often initially treated with medication that suppress your stomach’s production of acid, like Nexium, Prevacid, Protonix or Aciphex. If you have evidence of H. pylori infection, you will also be treated with antibiotics. If you don't get better in the first few weeks of treatment, your doctor may do an upper endoscopy or a Barium study to evaluate your digestive tract.
During an endoscopy, your doctor looks into your stomach through a thin tube. He or she may take a biopsy (a sample of the stomach lining) to test for H. pylori. Blood and breath tests can also be used to test for H. pylori.
Possible symptoms of an ulcer include:
- Feel worse when you eat or drink
- Feel better when you eat or drink, then worse 1-2 hours later
- Wake up at night with stomach pain
- Become full shortly after eating
- Unexpected weight loss
Always be concerned (and seek treatment right away) if:
- You vomit blood
- You feel unusually weak or dizzy
- You have blood in your stools (which may make them look black, like tar)
- You have sudden severe abdominal pain
- You keep losing weight
- You can’t stop vomiting
- The pain radiates to you back