Originally published on March 13, 2010
Most of us have heard the term ‘ulcers.’ We used to think it was caused by stress. Now we know differently. In the old days, there seemed to be no solution, so the symptoms were generally treated by drinking milk to reduce your stomach’s acidity. It calmed the stomach, but did not cure the infection. It’s hard to believe that over 50% of the world has this common bacterial infection, but they do. Many people, over 80%, have no symptoms at all. Those who do have symptoms usually experience abdominal pain, bloating and fullness in their abdominal area, indigestion, feeling extremely hungry after a couple hours of eating and mild nausea that might result in vomiting.
In 1982, Australian doctors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered Helicobacter pylori (HP) in the stomachs of patients with gastritis and stomach ulcers. It was traditionally thought that no bacteria cold live in your stomach because of the high acid content – almost the same strength as in your car’s battery. For their seminal work in finding HP, Dr Marshall and Dr. Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2005. It is interesting to note that this bacterium had been found earlier in history – in 1875 by German scientists and in 1893 by an Italian researcher. They both described the HP bacterium, but were unable to culture it. HP has a characteristic spiral or corkscrew shape.
HP survives in your stomach by hiding in the mucus lining. As such, it weakens your stomach lining and allows your digestive juice to irritate your stomach lining. It is interesting that patients with an actual ulcer benefit better from antibiotic treatments than patients with heartburn and acid reflux. A preferred treatment by some doctors today is to treat HP patients with antibiotics and proton-pump inhibitors. These treatments must be taken for two weeks. In most cases a combination of antibiotics are used so that the HP bacterium cannot develop a resistance to any single treatment. Typical antibiotics used are clarithromycin (Biaxin), amoxicillin, tetracycline and metronidazole (Flagyl). Sometimes proton-pump inhibitors are used to treat HP. These drugs include omeprazole (Priolosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid) and esomaprazole (Nexium). I personally prefer non-prescription options. In some cases, bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) works. I use whole-fruit mangosteen juice for any stomach ailment. I’ve found that it offers nearly instant relief and it lasts a long time and has no side effects. Regardless of what you use, HP is difficult to cure.
HP grows only in your stomach. Most people contract HP when they are children. The most likely cause is unsanitary living conditions – prevalent in so many areas in the world. HP can also be passed on from one person to another. Many people can have HP and never get an ulcer. However, drinking coffee and alcohol increase your risk of contracting an ulcer. An increased risk of developing an ulcer can be found in people who smoke.
There are many tests that can confirm you have HP. Blood (antibody), breath (carbon urea breath test), stool (antigen) test and urine tests can be used. The most accurate and reliable method to detect HP is a biopsy check with an upper endoscopy of your esophagus, stomach and duodenum. This is a particularly invasive procedure and can be used to verify any existent stomach ulcers. None of the tests are absolutely fail-proof. Biopsies are dependent on the location where the biopsy was taken – blood antibody tests are 75-85% accurate – urine tests can be up to 96% accurate. False negatives can be obtained by drug interactions that you might be taking. The good news is that once you have been cured of HP, the odds of it returning are very low. Breath and stool tests can confirm if you have been cured of HP.
There have been some reports that untreated HP can lead to other stomach complications, most notably stomach cancer. Contact your doctor if you have blood in your stool, abdominal pain, persistent indigestion or heartburn. Seek immediate medical help if you begin vomiting blood.