The modern society has brought many lifestyle habits that changed people’s diet completely. Even though there is no clear evidence suggesting that the stress or fast food can cause ulcers, there are many cases when ulcers appear in people with such habits. Taking into consideration how our lives look like nowadays, it is commonly believed that about one out of every 10 Americans will suffer from the burning, gnawing abdominal pain of a peptic (or gastric) ulcer at some point in life.
Peptic ulcers are holes or breaks in the protective lining of the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine) or the stomach. These two are the areas that come into contact with stomach acids and enzymes. Duodenal ulcers are more common than stomach ulcers.
The most common symptoms that appear in a person with ulcers are the following:
- Burning stomach pain
- Feeling of fullness, bloating or belching
- Fatty food intolerance
The most common peptic ulcer symptom is burning stomach pain. Stomach acid makes the pain worse. The sensation you feel is the same as when you have an empty stomach. The pain can often be relieved by eating certain foods that buffer stomach acid or by taking an acid-reducing medication, but then it may come back. The moments of the day when the pain may be worse are between meals and at night.
Nearly three-quarters of people with peptic ulcers usually do not have any symptoms.
There are also moments, less often, when ulcers may cause severe signs or symptoms such as:
- Vomiting or vomiting blood — which may appear red or black
- Dark blood in stools, or stools that are black or tarry
- Trouble breathing
- Feeling faint
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Appetite changes
Peptic ulcers occur when acid in the digestive tract eats away at the inner surface of the stomach or small intestine. The acid can create a painful open sore that may bleed.
Common causes include:
- Helicobacter pylori bacteria. It commonly lives in the mucous layer that covers and protects tissues that line the stomach and small intestine. Even though this bacterium often causes no problems, it can cause inflammation of the stomach’s inner layer. This is how the ulcer appears.
- Regular use of certain pain relievers. For example, taking aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) you can irritate or inflame the lining of your stomach and small intestine. Peptic ulcers are more common in older adults who take these pain medications frequently or in people who take these medications for osteoarthritis.
- Other medications. When you combine other medications with NSAIDs, such as steroids, anticoagulants, low-dose aspirin, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), alendronate and risedronate you can greatly increase the chance of developing ulcers.
Apart from the causes mentioned above, there are also other risk factors that can develop peptic ulcers:
- Smoking may increase the risk of peptic ulcers in people who are infected with H. pylori.
- If you drink alcohol you can irritate and erode the mucous lining of your stomach, and it increases the amount of stomach acid that’s produced.
- Have untreated stress.
- Eat spicy foods.
Even though if we take these factors alone, they will not cause ulcers, they can make them worse and more difficult to heal.
How to Prevent Peptic Ulcers
Your lifestyle and eating habits can increase the risks to develop peptic ulcers or not. Therefore, considering the causes for this condition, you can prevent peptic ulcers by:
- not drinking more than two alcoholic beverages a day
- not mixing alcohol with medication
- washing your hands frequently to avoid infections
- limiting your use of ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen
As there are various causes for the peptic ulcers, the treatment needs to be adjusted accordingly. Usually, the treatment will focus on killing the H. pylori bacterium. Moreover, medications can include:
- Antibiotic medications to kill H. pylori. These may include amoxicillin, clarithromycin, metronidazole, tinidazole, tetracycline, and levofloxacin.
- Medications that block acid production and promote healing. These drugs include the prescription and over-the-counter medications omeprazole, lansoprazole, rabeprazole, esomeprazole, and pantoprazole. However, using these proton pump inhibitors in the long term, particularly at high doses, they may increase your risk of hip, wrist and spine fracture.
- Medications to reduce acid production. Acid blockers reduce the amount of stomach acid released into your digestive tract, which relieves ulcer pain and encourages healing.
If not treated in an initial phase, ulcers can become worse over time. They can lead to other more serious health complications such as:
- Perforation: A hole develops in the lining of the stomach or small intestine and causes an infection. The first sign of a perforated ulcer is sudden, severe abdominal pain.
- Internal bleeding that requires hospitalization. Signs of a bleeding ulcer include lightheadedness, dizziness, and black stools.
- Scar tissue: This is thick tissue that develops after an injury. This tissue makes it difficult for food to pass through your digestive tract. Signs of scar tissue include vomiting and weight loss.
As soon as you start experiencing these complications, it is more likely that your doctor will ask for surgery. In order to discover ulcers at an early stage, it is important to seek urgent medical attention if you experience the following symptoms:
- sudden, sharp abdominal pain
- fainting, excessive sweating, or confusion, as these may be signs of shock
- blood in vomit or stool
- abdomen that’s hard to the touch
- abdominal pain that worsens with movement but improves with lying completely still