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Published on March 31, 2014

Can Ulcers Be Prevented?

To put it simply, ulcers are a pain in the gut. But can they be prevented?

Ulcers, Defined

First, some definitions: A peptic ulcer is a sore in the inner lining of the stomach or upper small intestine. Ulcers that form in the stomach are known as gastric ulcers, while those that form in the upper small intestine are called duodenal ulcers.

“Ulcers form when the intestine or stomach’s protective layer is broken down,” said Joyann Kroser, M.D., Crozer-Keystone Gastroenterologist, “when this happens, digestive juices—which contain hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin—can damage the intestine or stomach tissue.”

Causes

Although many people believe stress and/or spicy foods contribute to the development of ulcers, Dr. Kroser said it’s not clear if there is a direct link. The two known causes of ulcers are, however, infection with a certain type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) and regular use of anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.

Other factors that are known to cause ulcers include drinking too much alcohol, smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and being very sick. Dr. Kroser said this might include those who are on a breathing machine or who are receiving radiation treatments.

Symptoms

Although ulcers sometimes don’t have any symptoms, they often cause a burning pain in the middle or upper stomach between meals or at night, as well as bloating, heartburn, nausea, or vomiting. In severe cases, ulcers might cause dark or black stool, vomiting blood, weight loss, and severe pain in the mid to upper abdomen.

Treatment/Prevention

Sometimes, they heal on their own. However, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible. If left untreated, ulcers can lead to serious health problems such as bleeding, punctures, and scarring. 

To prevent peptic ulcers from developing in the first place, you can:

  • Quit smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks a day
  • Limit or stop use of NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen
  • Avoid foods that upset your stomach, such as spicy and/or fatty foods.
  • Control your stress levels. Regular exercise and meditation techniques, such as deep breathing or yoga, are great ways to reduce stress.

If you suspect you may have an ulcer, Dr. Kroser recommends speaking with a gastroenterologist who can perform an endoscopy to look for an ulcer and test for an H. pylori infection. For more information call 1-877-CKHS-GI1 (1-877-254-7441) or visit www.ckhsgi.org.

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