Stomach ulcers may cause heartburn, which may feel like a burning sensation in the chest. However, other conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can also cause heartburn.
Stomach ulcers, which some people may refer to simply as “ulcers,” are sores on the lining of a person’s stomach or duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. Doctors may also refer to them as peptic ulcers, duodenal ulcers, or peptic ulcer disease (PUD).
Many people associate the term “heartburn” with gastroesophageal reflux (GER), which is when stomach contents come back up into a person’s esophagus or food pipe.
It is common to experience GER occasionally, but if a person has symptoms of GER frequently they may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). People may also refer to GERD as acid reflux, acid indigestion, or acid regurgitation.
This article discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of heartburn (in the context of GERD) and stomach ulcers. It also answers some common questions about ulcers and heartburn.
- dull or burning pain in their upper abdomen (between the breastbone and belly button) that may come and go
- feeling uncomfortably full after eating
- feeling full too soon when eating
- abdominal bloating
- nausea and vomiting
A person with ulcers may not experience any symptoms until the condition leads to complications. If a person has symptoms that include the following, they should seek professional medical attention immediately:
- sharp, sudden, or severe abdominal pain that does not go away
- blood in their vomit
- blood in their stool
- a rapid pulse or other symptoms of shock
- ulcer symptoms that change or get worse
People with GERD may also experience:
According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), the symptoms of heartburn are often worse:
- when lying down
- after eating
- when bending over
Stomach ulcers and GERD have different causes. People should note that, according to the NHS, stomach ulcers may sometimes cause heartburn.
- for a long time
- at high doses, or more than one NSAID
- of a certain type or with other medication that increases a person’s risk of ulcers
- while also having an H. pylori infection
Risk factors that also make a person
- previous experience of ulcers
- older age
- consuming certain food or drinks, such as:
- living with overweight or obesity
- increases in some types of hormones, like estrogen and progesterone
- taking certain medications, including:
- hiatal hernia
Healthcare professionals may perform different diagnostic tests to find out if a person has a stomach ulcer or GERD.
- asking a person about:
- their symptoms
- any past ulcers or H. pylori infections
- medications a person takes, particularly NSAIDs
- their family history of ulcers, H. pylori infections, or digestive tract cancers
- performing a physical exam on a person by listening to sounds within their abdomen with a stethoscope and checking for abdominal swelling, pain, or tenderness
- ordering tests, such as:
- blood tests
- stool tests
Healthcare professionals use esophageal pH monitoring to work out if there is any stomach acid in a person’s esophagus. They may use a catheter, which is a thin flexible tube that they place into the esophagus through the nose, to measure acid and nonacid reflux.
Alternatively, they may use endoscopy to place a small, wireless capsule that measures acid reflux on the lining of someone’s esophagus.
Healthcare professionals treat stomach ulcers and GERD differently.
Some medications for ulcers
Doctors can prescribe medication to treat H. pylori infections, a cause of ulcers. These may include:
If taking NSAIDs is the underlying cause of a person’s stomach ulcer, doctors may recommend:
- not taking NSAIDs anymore
- taking different NSAIDs or a different medication
- reducing a person’s NSAID dosage
Treatments for GERD can include taking medications, making lifestyle changes, and in rare cases, surgical procedures.
Medications a doctor may recommend include:
- H2 blockers
Lifestyle changes that healthcare professionals may recommend include:
- quitting smoking, if one smokes
- maintaining a healthy weight
- avoiding food and drinks that may trigger or worsen GERD symptoms
- elevating their head by
6–8 inchesusing extra pillows or a foam wedge going to sleep
Below are some of the most common questions and answers about ulcers and heartburn.
Can acid reflux cause mouth ulcers?
Can a stomach ulcer feel like heartburn?
Can a stomach ulcer heal on its own?
Stomach ulcers may cause heartburn. However, people typically associate heartburn with GERD, which primarily affects a person’s esophagus, while stomach ulcers can affect their stomach lining or duodenum.
H. pylori infections or taking certain types of medication can often cause ulcers. GERD may have several causes such as smoking, having overweight or obesity, or taking certain medications.
Treatments for stomach ulcers include taking medications like antibiotics for H. pylori infections and stopping or modifying NSAID use in accordance with a doctor’s guidance.
A person may also take medications to help treat GERD. They may also benefit from making lifestyle changes like avoiding certain foods in the diet and quitting smoking.
People should speak with a doctor if they experience any symptoms of stomach ulcers or GERD. They should also speak with a healthcare professional about heartburn that does not go away.