Understanding H. pylori and Ulcers

Traditionally, ulcers, or sores in the lining of your digestive tract, were thought to be caused by too much spicy food, stress, or an anxious personality. We now know that most ulcers are probably due to infection with bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).

Image of lining of digestive tract
H. pylori invade and disturb the lining of the digestive tract. Acid may weaken the area, causing an ulcer.

Common ulcer symptoms

  • Burning, cramping, or hungerlike pain in the stomach area, often one to three hours after a meal or in the middle of the night

  • Pain that gets better or worse with eating

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Black, tarry, or bloody stools (which means the ulcer is bleeding)

Or you may have no symptoms.

Image of stomach and duodenum
An ulcer can form in two areas of the digestive tract; the stomach and the duodenum (where the stomach meets the small intestine).

Your evaluation

An evaluation by your doctor can show if you have an ulcer and determine whether it was caused by H. pylori. Your doctor may ask you questions, examine you, and possibly do some tests. These may include:

  • A special X-ray called an upper gastrointestinal series, to help locate an ulcer. Before the test, you drink a chalky liquid, called barium. This liquid helps the ulcer show up on the X-ray.

  • An endoscopic exam, done with a long tube with a camera on the end. The tube is passed through your mouth into your stomach, and allows the doctor to get a closer look at your ulcer. You will be lightly sedated for this procedure. Your doctor can also take a tissue sample to test for H. pylori.

  • Blood, stool, and breath tests are also available to show whether you have H. pylori in your digestive tract.

Your treatment

To kill H. pylori so your ulcer can heal, your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics. Other ulcer medications that help reduce stomach acid may also be prescribed as well. Testing after treatment may be recommended to be sure the H. pylori infection is gone. Usually, killing H. pylori helps keep the ulcer from returning.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 3/23/2014
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