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What Is Peptic Ulcer Disease?

Peptic ulcer disease refers to painful sores or ulcers in the lining of the stomach or first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum.

What Causes Ulcers?

No single cause has been found for ulcers. However, it is now clear that an ulcer is the end result of an imbalance between digestive fluids in the stomach and duodenum. Most ulcers are caused by an infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).

Factors that can increase your risk for ulcers include:

  • Use of painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprosyn, and others), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, some types of Midol, and others), and many others available by prescription; even safety-coated aspirin and aspirin in powered form can frequently cause ulcers.
  • Excess acid production from gastrinomas, tumors of the acid producing cells of the stomach that increases acid output (seen in Zollinger-Ellison syndrome)
  • Excessive drinking of alcohol
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Serious illness
  • Radiation treatment to the area

What Are the Symptoms of an Ulcer?

An ulcer may or may not have symptoms. When symptoms occur, they may include:

In severe cases, symptoms can include:

How Serious Is an Ulcer?

Though ulcers often heal on their own, you shouldn't ignore their warning signs. If not properly treated, ulcers can lead to serious health problems, including:

  • Bleeding
  • Perforation (a hole through the wall of the stomach)
  • Gastric outlet obstruction from swelling or scarring that blocks the passageway leading from the stomach to the small intestine

Taking NSAIDs can lead to an ulcer without any warning. The risk is especially concerning for the elderly and for those with a prior history of having peptic ulcer disease.

Who Is More Likely to Get Ulcers?

You may be more likely to develop ulcers if you:

  • Are infected with the H. pylori bacterium
  • Take NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen
  • Have a family history of ulcers
  • Have another illness such as liver, kidney, or lung disease
  • Drink alcohol regularly
  • Are age 50 or older

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