A peptic ulcer is a defect in the lining of the stomach or the first part of the small intestine, an area called the duodenum.
A peptic ulcer in the stomach is called a gastric ulcer. An ulcer in the duodenum is called a duodenal ulcer.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Ulcer – peptic; Ulcer – duodenal; Ulcer – gastric; Duodenal ulcer; Gastric ulcer; Dyspepsia – ulcers
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Normally, the lining of the stomach and small intestines is protected against the irritating acids produced in your stomach. If this protective lining stops working correctly and the lining breaks down, it results in inflammation (gastritis) or an ulcer.
Most ulcers occur in the first layer of the inner lining. A hole that goes all the way through the stomach or duodenum is called a perforation. A perforation is a medical emergency.
The most common cause of such damage is infection of the stomach by bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori). Most people with peptic ulcers have these bacteria living in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Yet, many people who have these bacteria in their stomach do not develop an ulcer.
The following also raise your risk for peptic ulcers:
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Regular use of aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Taking aspirin or NSAIDs once in a while is safe for most people.
- Smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco
- Being very ill, such as being on a breathing machine
- Having radiation treatments
A rare condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome causes stomach and duodenal ulcers. Persons with this disease have a tumor in the pancreas. This tumor releases high levels of a hormone that increases stomach acid.
Many people believe that stress causes ulcers. It is not clear if this is true, at least for everyday stress at home.
Small ulcers may not cause any symptoms. Some ulcers can cause serious bleeding.
Abdominal pain is a common symptom, but it doesn’t always occur. The pain can differ from person to person.
Other symptoms include:
- Feeling of fullness — unable to drink as much fluid
- Hunger and an empty feeling in the stomach, often 1 – 3 hours after a meal
- Mild nausea (vomiting may relieve this symptom)
- Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen
- Upper abdominal pain that wakes you up at night
Other possible symptoms include:
- Bloody or dark tarry stools
- Chest pain
- Vomiting, possibly bloody
- Weight loss
Signs and tests
To diagnose an ulcer, your doctor will order one of the following tests:
- Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD or upper endoscopy) is a special test performed by a gastroenterologist. A thin tube with a camera on the end is inserted through your mouth into the GI tract to see your stomach and small intestine.
- Upper GI is a series of x-rays taken after you drink a thick substance called barium.
Upper endoscopy is also done on people who are at high risk for stomach cancer. Risk factors include being over age 45 or having symptoms such as:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Unexplained weight loss
Testing for H. pylori is also needed.
Your doctor may also order these tests:
- Hemoglobin blood test to check for anemia
- Stool occult blood test to test for blood in your stool
Treatment involves a combination of medications to kill the H. pylori bacteria (if present), and reduce acid levels in the stomach. This strategy allows your ulcer to heal and reduces the chance it will come back.
Take all of your medications exactly as prescribed.
If you have a peptic ulcer with an H. pylori infection, the standard treatment uses different combinations of the following medications for 5 – 14 days:
- Two different antibiotics to kill H. pylori, such as clarithromycin (Biaxin), amoxicillin, tetracycline, or metronidazole (Flagyl)
- Proton pump inhibitors such as omeprazole (Prilosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), or esomeprazole (Nexium)
- Bismuth (the main ingredient in Pepto-Bismol) may be added to help kill the bacteria
If you have an ulcer without an H. pylori infection, or one that is caused by taking aspirin or NSAIDs, your doctor will likely prescribe a proton pump inhibitor for 8 weeks.
You may also be prescribed this type of medicine if you must continue taking aspirin or NSAIDs for other health conditions.
Other medications that may be used for ulcer symptoms or disease are:
- Misoprostol, a drug that may help prevent ulcers in people who take NSAIDs on a regular basis
- Medications that protect the tissue lining (such as sucralfate)
If a peptic ulcer bleeds a lot, an EGD may be needed to stop the bleeding. Methods used to stop the bleeding include injecting medicine, or applying metal clips to the ulcer. Surgery may be needed if bleeding cannot be stopped with an EGD, or if the ulcer has caused a tear (perforation).
Peptic ulcers tend to come back if untreated. If you follow your doctor’s treatment instructions and take all of your medications as directed, the H. pylori infection will likely be cured and you’ll be much less likely to get another ulcer.
- Bleeding inside the body (internal bleeding)
- Gastric outlet obstruction
- Inflammation of the tissue that lines the wall of the abdomen (peritonitis)
- Perforation of the stomach and intestines
Calling your health care provider
Seek urgent help if you:
- Develop sudden, sharp abdominal pain
- Have a rigid, hard abdomen that is tender to touch
- Have symptoms of shock such as fainting, excessive sweating, or confusion
- Vomit blood or have blood in your stool (especially if it’s maroon or dark, tarry black)
Call your doctor if:
- You feel dizzy or light-headed
- You have ulcer symptoms
Avoid aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and other NSAIDs. Try acetaminophen instead. If you must take such medicines, talk to your doctor first. Your doctor may:
- Test you for H. pylori first
- Have you take proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or an acid blocker
- Have you take a drug called misoprostol
The following lifestyle changes may help prevent peptic ulcers:
- Do not smoke or chew tobacco.
- Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day.
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Lanza FL, Chan FK, Quigley EM; Practice Parameters Committee of the American College of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for prevention of NSAID-related ulcer complications. Am J Gastroenterol. 2009;104:728-738.
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