Helicobacter pylori, also known as H. pylori, is a bacteria that can cause stomach ulcers. H. pylori infect roughly two-thirds of people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although it doesn’t always cause ulcers. Most people who have this bacteria never experience any symptoms of it. As sanitation improves, cases of H. pylori infections are decreasing. Many cases are treatable, but serious cases can lead to stomach cancer.
History of H. Pylori
H pylori were not discovered until 1982. Before that time, stress, stomach acid, and spicy foods were considered to be the main causes of stomach ulcers. Those with ulcers were treated with medications that relieved symptoms but did not cure infections, which led to recurring ulcers. After H. pylori were discovered, medical professionals began focusing on getting rid of infections with antibiotics. Researchers also understood more about how this bacteria causes stomach ulcers.
How H. Pylori Causes Ulcers
H pylori enter the body when people consume contaminated food or water or eat with contaminated utensils. The bacteria also spreads through contact with body fluids from those with an H. pylori infection. Many infections occur in areas that do not have adequate sewage systems or clean sources of water.
When the bacteria get into the body, it damages the stomach lining. This allows digestive stomach acids to get past the lining, resulting in sores, or ulcers. When ulcers form, they can cause a burning sensation in the stomach, as well as bloating, vomiting, appetite loss and unexplained weight loss. Although in some cases, this bacteria can lead to stomach cancer, it is important to note that there are other causes for stomach cancer and not all patients with H. pylori infection go on to develop stomach cancer. While more than half of people worldwide have H. pylori present in their body, the bacteria doesn’t cause ulcers in everyone. For some people, symptoms do not appear until years after the initial infection.
Treatments for H. Pylori
Doctors typically treat H. pylori infections with medications that destroy the bacteria and help the stomach lining recover. These medications include the following:
- Antibiotics: Amoxicillin, tetracycline and other antibiotics get rid of H. pylori.
- Acid-reducing medication: Omeprazole, esomeprazole and other medications help reduce the amount of acid produced in the stomach, which allows the lining to heal properly. Other medications, such as famotidine, also lower the amount of stomach acid by blocking chemicals that produce it.
- Bismuth subsalicylate: This medication protects ulcers from stomach acid as they heal.
Those with ulcers from H. pylori should also avoid spicy foods, smoking and other factors that can make these sores worse until they’re fully healed. Once an infection clears up, which can take up to two weeks, patients sometimes undergo testing to make sure that H. pylori is gone.
An important note about testing for H. pylori is that the blood test is usually only valid initially and once. This is not an effective way to see if the infection has cleared after treatment, as the antibody against H. pylori tends to remain in the body for a long time, even after the infection has cleared. Appropriate tests should be done by your doctor, with certain precautions so the test is accurate, not giving false-positive or false-negative results.
Preventing H. Pylori Infections
Although H. pylori usually don’t cause ulcers in those with an infection, it is still associated with some ulcers and sometimes an increased risk of stomach cancer. In order to lower the risk of infection, people should do the following:
- Wash hands: Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent an H. pylori infection, especially before eating and after using a restroom.
- Avoid contaminated food: Eating foods that have been properly prepared and cooked thoroughly can help prevent infections.
- Drink clean water. Drinking water from a clean source, such as filtered water, and avoiding swallowing water in ponds, lakes and other unsafe sources, helps lower the risk of infection.
If you’ve been dealing with discomfort caused by ulcers, please contact a gastroenterologist with GI Alliance today.