Ulcers are sores or lesions found on the skin or mucous membranes of the body. They affect one out of every 10 Americans at some point in their lives and about 5 million people each year. Peptic ulcers are most common and refer to sores found in the lining of the stomach, known as gastric, and duodenum (part of the intestines), known as duodenal.

Ulcers can also occasionally form in the esophagus, usually as a result of alcohol abuse.

While there are common beliefs that ulcers form as a result of stress or poor eating habits, infections of a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) are usually the cause. Smoking, caffeine, alcohol, stress and excessive use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) can also increase the risk of an ulcer.

Ulcers commonly cause a gnawing or burning pain in the abdomen lasting from a few minutes to a few hours, coming and going for weeks. Other symptoms of ulcers include:

  • Back pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

Some people may experience no symptoms at all. Untreated ulcers can lead to more serious symptoms and complications, including bleeding, perforation and obstruction of the intestinal opening.

If you are experiencing symptoms of an ulcer, your doctor will perform tests for the presence of an H. pylori infection, which is treated differently than ulcers caused by other factors. After a medical examination, your doctor may perform the following tests to properly diagnose an ulcer:

  • Endoscopy – a small tube with a camera on the end is inserted into the mouth and down through the esophagus to view the upper gastrointestinal tract for visual evidence of an ulcer.
  • Upper gastrointestinal series – an X-ray of the esophagus and stomach is taken to look for a peptic ulcer.
  • Helicobacter pylori tests – a series of tests using the blood, breath, stool and stomach tissue to detect the presence of H. pylori
  • Biopsy – small pieces of tissue are removed and tests them for an ulcer but also for stomach cancer, if your doctor believes that is the cause of your symptoms.

Once a peptic ulcer is diagnosed, it can usually be treated quickly and effectively. If the ulcer is a result of an H. pylori infection, it can be treated with antibiotic medication to kill the bacteria. A combination of treatment methods referred to as triple therapy is often used. This treatment combines two antibiotics to kill the bacteria and either an acid suppressor or a stomach protector over the course of a 2 week treatment period.

Ulcers caused by life factors can be treated simply by altering your behavior. Quitting smoking, eating healthy and reducing stress and alcohol intake can help treat and prevent ulcers. Discontinuation of NSAIDs can also relieve symptoms. Medications that reduce the amount of acid in the stomach, such as H2 blocker and proton pump inhibitors may also be prescribed. Surgery that either removes or opens up part of the stomach may be needed in some rare cases.

Peptic ulcers that do not respond to treatment may be the result of a complication such as stomach cancer. A biopsy is usually performed on these patients to diagnose a more serious complication. If cancer is the cause of your symptoms, more aggressive treatment methods, such as surgery or chemotherapy may be used.

Ulcers are a very common condition that can usually be treated efficiently. While avoiding smoking, excessive alcohol, fatty food and NSAIDs can help reduce your risk of developing an ulcer, the cause of an H. pylori infection is unknown and cannot be properly prevented. See your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of an ulcer.

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