Stomach ulcers are ulcers that develop in the stomach or the intestinal (duodenal portion) lining. Also known as peptic ulcers, these open sores that are prone to perforation or bleeding. The condition is quite painful, and depending on the location, exacerbates immediately or a few hours after a meal. Peptic ulcers may show no initial symptoms, but if you have one, you can be prone to recurrences. Let’s look at why they happen and how to keep the problem under control.
What causes them?
These stomach ulcers are caused due to an imbalance in the proportion of your stomach acid, and/or a corresponding change in the thickness of the mucus layer lining your digestive tract. Put simply, you can develop peptic ulcers when the digestive acid in the stomach increases and starts eating away at the protective mucus lining. Or the mucus lining becomes thinner, thus allowing the digestive acid to corrode it further.
When either or both phenomena occur, you can develop a peptic ulcer on the inner surface of the stomach or the upper portion of the small intestine.
Why does this happen, though? There are two possible reasons:
- An infection by H. pylori bacteria: A mucus layer covers and protects the stomach lining. This layer contains a certain proportion of the H. pylori bacteria, which are normally harmless. However, they may rise in number and inflame the tissues, overwhelming the protective layers against the acid, leading to an ulcer. The mucus layer becomes thinner and allows the stomach acid to attack it further. The infection can be transmitted via contaminated food and water, and person-to-person contact (such as kissing) between one or more infected partners.
- Use of antibiotics and/or painkillers: The stomach lining is a robust entity, but it is prone to irritation and inflammation by certain chemicals found in pain relieving medication. Aspirin and other NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) commonly contain chemical complexes that inflame and irritate the lining of the stomach and small intestine. Naproxen,Ibuprofen, etc and certain Acetaminophens can lead to stomach ulcers. People on pain medications for long periods of time for arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism and muscle pain may experience one or more peptic ulcers. Your chances of getting peptic ulcers that bleed are dramatically increased with regular use of anticoagulants and low dose aspirin (generally prescribed for heart disease, blood clotting issues and hypertension) and steroids, among others.
Signs that you have a stomach ulcer
Interestingly, most people with peptic ulcers do not notice any painful symptoms. Those who do, experience these signs:
- Heartburn especially post meals
- Dyspepsia, including belching,bloating,abdominal distension, and fatty food intolerance
- Bloody vomiting, often reddish black in colour
- Bloody stools, often tarry in appearance
- Feeling faint
- Mild to moderate respiratory distress
- Nausea or vomiting after meals
- Rapid weight loss
- Loss of appetite
The most common triggers
It is a myth that spicy food and stress cause stomach ulcers–however, they do aggravate the problem. The other common triggers that increase the risk of developing peptic ulcers, or cause pain in existing ones are:
- Smoking: Nicotine and tobacco increase the risk of peptic ulcers among those infected with H. pylori bacteria.
- Alcohol: Alcohol irritates the mucus lining, and in response, the stomach produces more digestive acid to process it. This can make existing ulcers bleed.
How to treat stomach ulcers
- Lifestyle changes: If you are prone to, or are already suffering from, peptic ulcers, it is best to stay clear of the triggers mentioned above. Apart from overhauling your diet, you might consider quitting smoking, and consuming alcohol and hard drugs.
- Take painkillers judiciously: As mentioned above, you are at higher risk of developing peptic ulcers if you are on long term painkilling medication. Talk to your doctor about reducing your dosage over time.
- Keep infections to a minimum: Washing the hands frequently with antibacterial handwash or soap, maintaining good hygiene in the food prep and cooking areas, consuming boiled water and cooked food, can keep the H. pylori infection at bay.
- See your doctor at the first sign of pain: Peptic ulcers must be treated without delay–they may lead to internal bleeding, perforation and peritonitis of the abdominal cavity and obstruction of the stomach. If you experience abdominal pain or notice any of the symptoms listed above, see your doctor at once.
Conditions such as stomach ulcers may be avoided with a healthy lifestyle and diet. If symptoms do develop, prompt management based on the cause, with adequate medications are warranted. Always consult your family doctor immediately whenever you notice any out-of-the-ordinary behaviour displayed by your body.