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Categories > Digestive Disorders > Ulcers

Ulcers unmasked
What is an ulcer?
Diagnosing and treating ulcers

Who’s at risk
Who’s at risk

One in 10 Americans will develop an ulcer. Your risk for ulcers increases if you:

  • were born before 1950
  • were born in a developing country
  • live in a large family in crowded conditions
  • have infants in the home

“Stop worrying so much; you’ll give yourself an ulcer.” It’s a familiar phrase all right, but there’s not a grain of truth to it. Despite popular belief, neither stress nor spicy foods cause the stomach or chest pain associated with peptic ulcers. Instead, recent research has proven that bacteria known as H. pylori are at fault. This discovery turned what used to be an incurable, chronic illness into a condition that can be remedied in more than 90 percent of patients in a matter of weeks.

What is an ulcer?

A peptic ulcer is a sore in the lining of your stomach (a gastric ulcer) or small intestine (a duodenal ulcer). The sore occurs when the body produces too much protein-dissolving hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin.

Although H. pylori lives in the stomach of 20 percent of people younger than age 40 and half of people older than 60, it doesn’t always create a problem. Not everyone infected with H. pylori develops an ulcer.

Other triggers of ulcers include daily use of aspirin, ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These drugs can make the stomach more responsive to the acid and pepsin, promoting the sores. NSAID-induced ulcers are far less common and require specific treatment.

Diagnosing and treating ulcers

To test for an ulcer, your doctor will perform an upper gastrointestinal (GI) series or an endoscopy. An upper GI series is an X-ray of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum. In an endoscopy, your doctor will use a thin, lighted tube with a tiny camera on the end to take a picture of the ulcer and possibly remove a tissue sample. If an ulcer is found, your doctor will then test for H. pylori with a blood and/or breath test. For the breath test, you’ll be asked to drink a radioactive carbon solution. If the bacteria are in your body, a breath test will be able to detect the carbon.

Generally, ulcers are treated with a combination of antibiotics and drugs that eliminate ulcer pain by reducing acid secretion into the stomach. Treatment usually lasts for a couple of weeks, and the ulcer generally doesn’t return.