Stomach ulcers occur when the thick layer of mucus that protects your stomach from digestive juices is reduced. This allows the digestive acids to eat away at the tissues that line the stomach, causing an ulcer.
Stomach ulcers may be easily cured, but they can become severe without proper treatment.
What Causes Stomach Ulcers?
Stomach ulcers are almost always caused by one of the following:
an infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen
Rarely, a condition known as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome can cause stomach and intestinal ulcers by increasing the body’s production of acid. This syndrome is suspected to cause less than 1 percent of all peptic ulcers.
Symptoms of Stomach Ulcers
A number of symptoms are associated with stomach ulcers. The severity of the symptoms depends on the severity of the ulcer.
The most common symptom is a burning sensation or pain in the middle of your abdomen between your chest and belly button. Typically, the pain will be more intense when your stomach is empty, and it can last for a few minutes to several hours.
Other common signs and symptoms of ulcers include:
Dull pain in the stomach
Not wanting to eat because of pain
Nausea or vomiting
Feeling easily full
Burping or acid reflux
Heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest)
Pain that may improve when you eat, drink, or take antacids
Anemia, whose symptoms can include tiredness, shortness of breath, or paler skin
Dark, tarry stools
Vomit that’s bloody or looks like coffee grounds
Talk to your doctor if you have any symptoms of a stomach ulcer. Even though discomfort may be mild, ulcers can worsen if they aren’t treated. Bleeding ulcers can become life-threatening
Treating stomach ulcers
Treatment will vary depending on the cause of your ulcer. Most ulcers can be treated with a prescription from your doctor, but in rare cases, surgery may be required.
It’s important to promptly treat an ulcer. Talk to your doctor to discuss a treatment plan. If you have an actively bleeding ulcer, you’ll likely be hospitalized for intensive treatment with endoscopy and IV ulcer medications. You may also require a blood transfusion.
If your stomach ulcer is the result of H. pylori, you’ll need antibiotics and drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). PPIs block the stomach cells that produce acid.
In addition to these treatments, your doctor may also recommend:
H2 receptor blockers (drugs that also block acid production)
stopping use of all NSAIDs
probiotics (useful bacteria that may have a role in killing off H. pylori)
Symptoms of an ulcer may subside quickly with treatment. But even if your symptoms disappear, you should continue to take any medication prescribed by your doctor. This is especially important with H. pylori infections, to make sure that all bacteria are eliminated.
Side effects of medications used to treat stomach ulcers can include:
These side effects are typically temporary. If any of these side effects cause extreme discomfort, talk to your doctor about changing your medication.
In very rare cases, a complicated stomach ulcer will require surgery. This may be the case for ulcers that:
continue to return
tear through the stomach
keep food from flowing out of the stomach into the small intestine
Surgery may include:
removal of the entire ulcer
taking tissue from another part of the intestines and patching it over the ulcer site
tying off a bleeding artery
cutting off the nerve supply to the stomach to reduce the production of stomach acid