Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of your esophagus, stomach and the upper portion of your small intestine.
Types of Peptic Ulcers
The two most common types of peptic ulcers are stomach ulcers and duodenal ulcers. As their name suggests, stomach ulcers develop in the lining of the stomach. Duodenal ulcers develop in the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine.
Burning Pain is the most common symptom of peptic ulcers. The pain may:
- Be felt anywhere from your navel up to your breastbone
- Flare at night or when you're stomach is empty
- Be temporarily relieved by certain foods or acid-reducing medication
- Disappear and then return for a few days or weeks
In severe cases of peptic ulcers, symptoms can include:
- severe pain in your mid to upper abdomen
- dark or black stool resulting from bleeding
- weight loss
Peptic ulcers happen when the acids that help you digest food damage the walls of the stomach or duodenum. The most common cause is infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Another common cause is the long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen. It's a myth that spicy foods or stress cause peptic ulcers. While these factors may aggravate ulcers, most are caused by infections, certain medications or other digestive conditions.
To see if you have an H. pylori infection, your doctor may test your blood, breath or stool. Your provider also may recommend endoscopy to view inside your stomach/GI tract. In an endoscopy, your doctor passes a small, lighted tube down your throat and into your stomach. This tube, known as an endoscope, includes a tiny camera that allows your gastroenterologist to look at your throat, stomach and duodenum for signs of peptic ulcers.
Peptic Ulcer Risk Factors
Certain factors can increase your risk for peptic ulcers. These risk factors include:
- frequent use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- a family history of ulcers
- illness, such as kidney, liver, or lung disease
- regular consumption of alcohol
Peptic ulcers will get worse if not treated. Treatment may include medicines to reduce stomach acids or antibiotics to kill H. pylori. Antacids and milk can't heal peptic ulcers. Avoiding alcohol and not smoking can help. You may need surgery if your ulcers don't heal.
Frequently Asked Questions about Peptic Ulcers
Our doctors at Northeast Digestive frequently answer questions about peptic ulcers. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about peptic ulcers and their answers.
What is a peptic ulcer?
A peptic ulcer is a small sore that develops in your stomach or duodenum. In some cases, a peptic ulcer may develop in the esophagus, or “food pipe” that connects your throat to your stomach.
What causes peptic ulcers?
Ulcers may develop as the result of breakdown of the mucosa, which is the moist inner lining of the stomach and upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The mucosa release mucus that helps protect the lining of your stomach from corrosive stomach acid.
Breakdown of the mucosa is often the result of excessive secretion of stomach acid, also known as gastric acid. Stomach acid helps break down food, but it can also damage the delicate tissues of the upper GI tract to cause sores.
Infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a common cause of esophageal, stomach, and duodenal ulcers. After H. pylori enters your body, it attacks the protective mucus coating of the stomach and first part of the small intestine, or duodenum. Once through the mucus coating, the bacteria and stomach acid can irritate the sensitive tissue lining the stomach and duodenum to cause an ulcer.
Are peptic ulcers common?
Peptic ulcers are common. About 4 million people in the United States have an active peptic ulcer at any given time. Doctors diagnose about 350,000 new cases of peptic ulcers every year.
Can NSAIDs cause peptic ulcers?
Use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, for an extended time can lead to peptic ulcer disease. These drugs can irritate the lining of the stomach, prevent the mucosa from producing protective mucus, reduce blood flow to the stomach’s mucosa, and interfere with the healing of a superficial injury to the stomach lining.
NSAIDs reduce pain by blocking enzymes, known as prostaglandins, which trigger fever, inflammation, and pain in response to an injury or illness. While prostaglandins cause pain, they trigger the healing process too. Furthermore, prostaglandins inhibit the secretion of acid, stimulate the secretion of mucus, and contribute to the protection the mucosa provides. In other words, when you take NSAIDs to reduce pain, you may be increasing your risk for peptic ulcers.
How common are peptic ulcers?
Peptic ulcer disease affects about 4.6 million people in the United States each year. About 10 percent of the US population have evidence of having a duodenal ulcer, which affects the duodenum, at some point in their lives.
Can coffee and spicy foods cause peptic ulcers?
Many people believe that coffee and spicy food can cause peptic ulcers – you may be glad to know that that is not true! It is also untrue that people with ulcers have to eat a bland diet: you can continue enjoying your favorite foods as long as they do not worsen your symptoms.
If I think I have a peptic ulcer, what should I do?
If you have symptoms of a peptic ulcer or at high risk for developing this digestive condition, contact your doctor or gastroenterologist. Your digestion doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis and help you develop a personalized treatment plan that promotes healing.