We don't know if there's a single cause for ulcers. We do know they come from an imbalance between digestive fluids in the stomach and duodenum. Most happen because of an infection in the lining of the small intestine with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).
Things that can increase your odds of an ulcer include:
- Use of painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These include over-the-counter meds like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, as well as others you can get by prescription.
- A history of ulcers in your family
- Being age 50 or older
- Drinking alcohol
- Chewing tobacco
- Spicy foods
- Certain medications like steroids, anticoagulants, and drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Other medical problems like liver, kidney, or lung disease
- Radiation treatment to the area
You may not have any. If you do, they may include:
- A gnawing or burning pain in your stomach between meals or at night
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
In severe cases, symptoms can include:
- Dark or black stool
- Vomiting blood or material that can look like coffee grounds
- Weight loss
- Severe pain in your belly
How Serious Are They?
Though ulcers often heal on their own, you shouldn't ignore their warning signs. If not treated, ulcers can lead to serious health problems, including:
- A hole through the wall of your stomach called a perforation
- Swelling or scarring that blocks the passageway from your stomach to your small intestine
Taking NSAIDs can lead to an ulcer without warning. The risk is especially concerning for the elderly and those with a history of peptic ulcer disease.
Your doctor may suspect you have an ulcer just by your symptoms. But to make sure, he'll need to order tests of your blood, breath, and stool. First, he may ask you to take an acid-blocking medication, like those used to treat heartburn, to see if symptoms get better.
He may recommend a procedure called an upper endoscopy. A small, lighted tube (called an endoscope) is put in down your esophagus and into your stomach to look around. You'll usually get this if your symptoms are severe or they keep coming back.
There are several ways to treat ulcers, including:
Lifestyle changes: If you smoke or drink alcohol, stop. If you take NSAIDs, talk to your doctor about something else you can take.
Medications: These can include:
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) that ease acid levels and let the ulcer heal. They include:
- Your doctor could also prescribe one of several combinations of antibiotics that you'd take for a week or two along with a PPI.
An upper endoscopy can treat a bleeding ulcer.
You'll need an operation if your ulcer created a hole in the wall of your stomach, or if there's serious bleeding that can't be controlled with an endoscopy.
If you have symptoms of an ulcer, call your doctor right away.