They can be extremely painful, and, if left untreated, can wreak havoc on your body.
According to Dr. Nikita Patel, a family doctor at the Women’s College Hospital Family Practice Health Centre in Toronto, there are two categories of peptic ulcers: gastric and duodenal.
Ulcers aren’t “full thickness holes” in any organ, but they do cause the erosion of the walls of organs. In the case of peptic ulcers, the walls of your stomach or bowel become thinner.
Thankfully, there are some things you can do to lessen your risk of developing stomach ulcers.
What causes stomach ulcers?
There are two main causes of peptic ulcers: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (known as H. pylori).
“Those are considered high risk factors for getting peptic ulcers because they’re acidic, and they can create holes or erosion in the lining of the stomach when they sit there,” she said.
H. pylori is a bacteria that creates excess amounts of acid in the stomach.
It’s prevalent in developing nations. According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, approximately 75 per cent of people living in First Nations communities in Canada are infected with H. pylori.
If you’re suspected to have H. pylori, you will be tested in one of two ways: a breath test or an endoscopy.
“Smoking also makes it worse… if you had stomach cancer…drinking caffeine…and stress,” said Patel. “For example, if you had a burn on your body that covers more than 30 per cent of your body surface area, stomach ulcers can result from that.”
Signs and symptoms
Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to tell you have a peptic ulcer. According to Patel, up to 70 per cent of cases are asymptomatic.
“0.1 to 1.5 per cent of patients will have symptoms of a peptic ulcer in their lifetime, but many of them aren’t found that way,” she said.
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If the ulcer is in the duodenum, it is more likely to cause pain after a meal or overnight. “About two to five hours after a meal, you’ll get pain because that’s when the food has kind of moved through and now there’s acid moving through,” said Patel.
“Overnight, it can really start to hurt because… we create acid overnight — between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. — and that can really irritate the duodenum.”
Nausea and vomiting can also be present.
If a peptic ulcer goes undiagnosed, it can cause complications
If you’re experiencing pain, Patel’s first recommendation is to visit your family doctor.
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If your family doctor is very concerned, they may send you for H. pylori testing.
Treatment will require an acid suppressant, two antibiotics and the fourth (optional) medication is akin to Pepto Bismal.