What you need to know about ulcers

How easy is it to get an ulcer? Do they just affect older people?

The answers are ‘easier than you think’, and ‘no’. Let’s look at the details:

What are ulcers?
Basically, an ulcer is an open wound. The most common kind are peptic ulcers which form in the stomach or the upper part of the small intestine.

What causes ulcers?
Previously, people used to believe that ulcers were caused by spicy food, alcohol or stress. Today we know that most peptic ulcers are caused by:

1. A certain group of bacteria. H. pylori is a group of bacteria that lives in the stomach and small intestine. This bacteria can cause an infection that leads to ulcers. They live and grow in the stomach, but not everyone with the bacteria gets ulcers. It seems that a combination of H. pylori infection and the level of acid in the stomach may be the cause.

2. Medications. Certain medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) painkillers (aspirin or ibuprofen) used to fight inflammation. If these are taken in high daily doses over a long period of time, they can cause ulcers in some people.

3. Smoking: Smoking increases ulcer risk because nicotine causes the stomach to produce more acid. Drinking a lot of alcohol each day for a period of time can also increase your chances of getting an ulcer. The reason? Over time alcohol can wear down the lining of the stomach and intestines.

4. Stress: In certain circumstances stress can help cause ulcers, but usually it’s the kind of stress triggered by serious illness.

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How do I know if I have an ulcer?
Stomach pain is the most common symptom of an ulcer. It can feel like a series of sharp aches between your breastbone and belly button. While the pain often comes a few hours after eating, it can also happen during the night or early morning, when your stomach is empty. Taking an antacid medication or eating something may ease the pain for a while. Other symptoms of ulcers can include:

  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • sudden, sharp stomach pains
  • nausea, frequent burping or bouts of hiccups
  • vomiting (if blood is in the vomit or the vomit looks like coffee grounds, call your doctor immediately)
  • bloody or blackish stool (this could indicate a serious problem, so see your doctor right away)

What can I do about it?

If you think you have an ulcer, see your doctor without delay.

If left untreated, an ulcer can go from being a discomfort to life-threatening problem.