Helicobacter pylori, commonly called H. pylori, is a type of bacteria that infects the stomach and small bowel. It was discovered in 1982 by two Australian researchers who also found that it causes peptic ulcer disease.
Peptic ulcers are open sores in the lining of the stomach or the upper part of the small intestine. Peptic ulcers are often simply called “ulcers” or “stomach ulcers.” H. pylori also increase the risk of developing stomach cancer and gastritis.
In this article, we will explain what H. pylori is, how it makes you sick, and how it causes stomach ulcers.
For years, medical experts believed that peptic ulcers were caused by stress or certain foods.
After the discovery of H. pylori, however, this theory was argued extensively. A study in Digestive and Liver Disease suggests that 60 to nearly 100 percent of peptic ulcers are associated with H. pylori.
Ulcers aren’t the only problems associated with H. pylori; researchers discovered that H. pylori cause gastritis, a condition that involves inflammation of the stomach’s lining. H. pylori infection is also linked to stomach cancer; however, the American Cancer Society states that most people with H. pylori in their stomach never develop stomach cancer.
The stomach has a layer of mucus that is designed to protect it from stomach acid. H. pylori attack this mucus lining and leave part of the stomach exposed to acid. Together, the bacteria and the acid can irritate the stomach, causing ulcers, gastritis, or stomach cancer.
However, many people have H. pylori in their stomachs but do not have ulcers or any other related problems. In fact, two-thirds of the world’s population have H. pylori, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, for reasons not yet understood, some people get ulcers, gastritis, or stomach cancer from an H. pylori infection.
It is worth noting that peptic ulcers may also be caused by long-term use of certain medicines, including pain relievers such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. These medicines are called NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
A study published in The Lancet found that ulcers are rare in people who don’t take NSAIDs and who don’t have H. pylori in their stomachs.
No one knows for sure how people catch H. pylori. In some cases, contaminated food or water may be to blame. It has been found in human saliva, so experts think it may be able to spread from person to person.
There is no known way to prevent H. pylori infection, but experts recommend:
- Washing hands before eating and after using the restroom.
- Eating food that has been handled and prepared safely.
- Drinking only clean, safe drinking water.
H. pylori infections are more common in developing countries where people may not have access to clean, safe food and water.
Many people with H. pylori don’t have any signs or symptoms. If people get an illness caused by H. pylori, however, they may have various symptoms.
Symptoms of a stomach ulcer might include a dull or burning pain in the upper belly area. The pain is sometimes worse at night or when the stomach is empty. There may be temporary relief from taking an antacid, but the pain comes back.
Symptoms of gastritis often include upper belly pain, nausea, and vomiting.
A study in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics states that people with H. pylori infection may be up to six times more likely to get stomach cancer. Quick treatment of H. pylori can help reduce the damage that H. pylori can cause. This, in turn, may help reduce the risk of stomach cancer and other problems.
Possible symptoms of stomach cancer include:
- belly pain or swelling
- loss of appetite
- nausea or indigestion
- feeling full without eating very much
People with any of these symptoms should talk with their doctor. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions, so proper medical care is needed to diagnose the issue.
Possible complications of stomach ulcers
An ulcer can lead to serious complications if left untreated, including:
- Internal bleeding that can become life-threatening.
- A hole in the stomach that can lead to infection.
- Scar tissue that can block the stomach or intestine, preventing it from emptying food.
These complications require immediate medical attention. Possible warning signs include:
People who have symptoms of an ulcer, gastritis, or another stomach issue may be tested for H. pylori or other problems.
H. pylori can be detected with blood, breath, or stool tests.
Ulcers, gastritis, and stomach cancer are often diagnosed with a combination of the following tests:
- Medical history: past medical problems and symptoms are discussed.
- Physical exam: examining and listening to the belly.
- Special X-rays that show the inside of the stomach.
- Endoscopy: doctors view the inside of the stomach with a special instrument while the patient is sedated or put to sleep.
If an ulcer is found, patients may be treated with a variety of medications, including some or all of the following:
- Antibiotics to kill H. pylori.
- Medicines that reduce stomach acid called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or histamine receptor blockers.
- Medicines that coat the ulcer and help it heal.
Sometimes, a peptic ulcer can come back after treatment. To help avoid this, experts recommend:
- Stop NSAIDs or take a much smaller dose.
- Only take NSAIDs with special medicines that protect the stomach.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Do not smoke.
Most H. pylori infections can still be successfully treated with antibiotics. However, research suggests that some H. pylori infections are becoming resistant to certain antibiotics. This means H. pylori is able to survive antibiotic treatment and the patient may need another drug to kill the bacteria.
A study in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found some patients in the U.S. had H. pylori infections that were resistant to two different antibiotics. The American Journal of Gastroenterology reported a high number of resistant H. pylori bacteria in Latin American countries.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem across the globe. The CDC say that more than 23,000 people die each year as a result of an antibiotic-resistant infection. Many people may have heard of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), but there are many other types of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
Everyone can do their part to help fight the problem of antibiotic resistance. The CDC say that people should:
- Use antibiotics only when prescribed by a doctor.
- Never use antibiotics for colds or the flu – these are viruses and antibiotics won’t work against these illnesses.
- Take the entire course of antibiotics if they have been prescribed.
- Never share antibiotics with others.
- Never use old or leftover antibiotics.
Fortunately, H. pylori is still treatable with several different antibiotics. Quick treatment will help prevent damage to the stomach and the possible problems of ulcers, gastritis, and stomach cancer.