Peptic ulcer disease is a condition in which there are painful sores or ulcers in the lining of the stomach or the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). Normally, a thick layer of mucus protects the stomach lining from the effect of its digestive juices. But many things can reduce this protective layer, allowing for ulcers to occur.
What causes ulcers?
No single cause has been found for ulcers. However, it is now clear that an ulcer is created by an imbalance, or unevenness, between the digestive fluids hydrochloric acid and pepsin (a digestive enzyme) in the stomach and duodenum.
Ulcers can be caused by:
- Infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
- Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve®, Anaprox®, Naprosyn®, and others), ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®, Midol®, and others), and many others that are available by prescription. Even aspirin that is coated with a special substance can still cause ulcers.
- Excessive acid production from a condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (gastrinoma). A gastrinoma is a tumor of the acid-producing cells of the stomach that increases acid output.
Can spicy foods cause ulcers?
Though spicy foods can make ulcers more painful, they are not known to cause ulcers.
What ulcer symptoms should I look for?
An ulcer may or may not have symptoms. When symptoms occur, they include:
- A gnawing or burning pain in the middle or upper stomach between meals or at night
- Nausea or vomiting
In severe cases, symptoms can include:
- Dark or black stool (due to bleeding)
- Weight loss
- Severe pain in the mid- to upper abdomen
Am I at a greater risk for an ulcer if I take NSAIDs regularly?
The risk of an ulcer is related to the dose of the NSAID (meaning the more you take, the greater the risk). The risk increases with:
- Age (more likely over age 60)
- Gender (occurs more often in women than men)
- Use of corticosteroids (such as those taken for asthma or lupus) and NSAIDs together
- The length of time you have been taking NSAIDs
- A history of ulcer disease
Is an ulcer a serious condition?
Though ulcers often heal on their own, you shouldn't ignore their warning signs. If they are not properly treated, ulcers can lead to serious health problems, including:
- Perforation (a hole through the wall of the stomach)
- Gastric outlet obstruction (from swelling or scarring) that blocks the passageway from the stomach to the small intestine
Taking NSAIDs can cause any of the above, without warning. The risk is especially worrying for those over age 75 and for those who have a history of peptic ulcer disease.
Who is more likely to get ulcers?
You may be more likely to develop an ulcer if you:
- Are infected with the H. pylori bacterium
- Take NSAIDs (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and many others)
- Have a family history of ulcers
- Have another illness, such as liver, kidney, or lung disease
- Drink alcohol regularly
How are ulcers diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to make the diagnosis just by talking with you about your symptoms. However, to confirm the diagnosis, one of several tests should be taken. First, your doctor may ask you to take an acid-blocking medication for a short period of time to see if your symptoms improve.
If needed, your doctor may recommend a procedure called an upper endoscopy. In this procedure, the doctor inserts a small, lighted tube (endoscope) through the throat and into the stomach to look for abnormalities. This procedure is usually done if you are having severe ulcer symptoms.
Often, doctors will treat without confirming the diagnosis with endoscopy. If the cause is not likely to be from taking NSAIDs, then it is very likely to be from H. pylori. Most doctors will now test for H. pylori and will treat specifically for that, in addition to giving medications to reduce the symptoms.
H. pylori can be discovered either directly by taking a sample during an upper endoscopy, or indirectly, with a blood test or a breath test.
How are ulcers treated?
There are several ways in which ulcers can be treated, including making changes to one's lifestyle, taking medication, and/or having surgery.
If you have an ulcer, you should first eliminate substances that can be causing it. If you smoke or drink alcohol, stop. If the ulcer is believed to be caused by the use of NSAIDs, they need to be stopped.
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPI): Proton pump inhibitors reduce acid and allow the ulcer to heal. PPIs include Prilosec®, Prevacid®, Aciphex®, Protonix®, and Nexium®.
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used to treat H. pylori. There are multiple combinations of antibiotics that are taken for two weeks, along with a PPI. Some doctors also recommend taking Pepto-Bismol®.
Some bleeding ulcers can be treated through the endoscope.
An operation may be needed if the ulcer has created a hole in the stomach wall or if there is serious bleeding.
Will drinking milk help cure an ulcer?
No. Milk can make your ulcer worse. Milk provides brief relief of ulcer pain because it coats the stomach lining. But milk also causes your stomach to produce more acid and digestive juices, which can make ulcers worse.
How can I prevent ulcers?
- If you smoke, quit. People who smoke are twice as likely to develop ulcers. Ulcers also heal more slowly in people who smoke.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol.
- If you have symptoms of an ulcer, contact your doctor.
- Don't overuse NSAIDs.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Peptic Ulcer Disease Accessed 1/29/2016.
- American College of Gastroenterology. Peptic Ulcer Disease. Accessed 1/29/2016.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Helicobacter pylori and Peptic Ulcer Disease Accessed 1/29/2016.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Upper GI Endoscopy Accessed 1/29/2016.
© Copyright 1995-2016 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.
This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 1/29/2016...#10350