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Diseases & Conditions

Digestive Disease Institute Overview

Peptic ulcer disease (gastric ulcer and duodenal ulcer) is a common health problem. Approximately 20 million Americans will suffer from an ulcer once in their lifetime.

An ulcer is a break in the lining of the stomach or in the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum), a result of erosion caused by the stomach’s natural acids.


Peptic ulcer disease was once thought of simply as a problem of too much acid and stress. However, it is now clear that an ulcer is the end result of an imbalance between digestive fluids (hydrochloric acid and pepsin) in the stomach and duodenum. Much of that imbalance is clearly related to infection with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori ( H. pylori).

The other major risk factor for the development of ulcers is ingestion of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, buffered aspirin, naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprosyn, etc.) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Midol, etc.).

The risk of NSAID-induced ulceration is dose-related and increases with the following:

  • Age – more likely over age 60
  • Gender – will occur more often in women than men
  • Use of corticosteroids and NSAIDs together
  • Length of time taking NSAIDs
  • A history of ulcer disease

Serious complications associated with patients taking NSAIDs can occur without warning and include:

  • Bleeding
  • Perforation (a hole through the lining of the stomach)
  • Gastric outlet obstruction (scarring that blocks the passageway leading from the stomach to the small intestine)

Risk factors for developing these serious complications are age (75 years or older) and a history of peptic ulcer disease, bleeding ulcers or cardiovascular disease

A number of myths are clearly not associated with the development of ulcers. Stress, personality, occupation, alcohol consumption and diet all have no relationship with the development of peptic ulcers.


Gnawing, burning, upper abdominal pain relieved by antacids that often awakens the patient at night is classically associated with peptic ulcer disease.

Other causes of this discomfort include:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (commonly known as heartburn)
  • Stomach cancer
  • Slow stomach emptying
  • Sensitive stomach

 Ulcers may produce no symptoms, especially in patients that ingest NSAIDs.


There are several ways your doctor can confirm if you have a peptic ulcer:

To see if symptoms improve, a doctor might recommend a short trial of an acid-blocking medication, which may include Tagamet®, Zantac®, Pepcid®, Prilosec®, Axid®, Prevacid®, Protonix®, Nexium® or Aciphex®.

A doctor also may perform diagnostic tests to see if there is an ulcer. These tests include: 

  • X-ray examination known as an upper GI series, in which the patient is given a chalky substance to drink while x-rays are taken to outline the anatomy of the GI tract.
  • Upper endoscopy, which involves inserting a small lighted tube into the stomach to look for abnormalities. A small sample of tissue (biopsy) is removed and analyzed to confirm diagnosis.
  • Testing for H. pylori infection by either a stool sample or by obtaining a breath sample. If the test is positive, the patient is treated with antibiotics. If negative, the focus of the evaluation will be on the other causes of peptic ulcer disease, such as NSAID consumption.


A number of excellent treatment options are available for healing peptic ulcers:

  • Antacids are highly effective agents for healing ulcers and controlling symptoms. However, from a practical perspective, the inconvenient dosing frequency and adverse effects of therapy limit the use of antacids to symptom control only.
  • H2-receptor antagonists (Tagamet®, Zantac®, Pepcid®, Axid®) decrease acid production by the stomach and heal almost all duodenal and gastric ulcers after eight weeks of treatment.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (Prilosec®, Prevacid®, Nexium®, Protonix®, Aciphex®) are better at stopping the production of stomach acid and heal almost all duodenal ulcers in four weeks and gastric ulcers in eight weeks.

Peptic ulcer disease is a chronic disorder and almost all patients develop another ulcer within one year after being treated. This relapse rate was once reduced by taking chronic low dose (1/2 strength) maintenance therapy of any of the H2-blockers. However, treatment of H. pylori infection has revolutionized the treatment of peptic ulcer disease and cures ulcer disease completely in many patients.

H. pylori is treated with a combination of antibiotics (tetracycline, amoxicillin, etc.) medications or a proton pump inhibitor. This treatment should be attempted on all patients with evidence of infection and a current or past documented history of peptic ulcer disease. Completion of the two-week course of therapy is essential for successful treatment.

Treatment can be complicated because none of the antibiotic regimens used to treat H. pylori are 100 percent effective and there is no agreement on a single best regimen. Side effects caused by the medications also can make completion of the treatment difficult.

Side effects of antibiotic regimens include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Taste disturbance