Normally, the lining of the stomach and small intestines is protected against the irritating acids produced in your stomach. If this protective lining stops working correctly and the lining breaks down, it results in inflammation (gastritis) or an ulcer.
Most ulcers occur in the first layer of the inner lining. A hole that goes all the way through the stomach or duodenum is called a perforation. A perforation is a medical emergency.
The most common cause of such damage is infection of the stomach by bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori). Most people with peptic ulcers have these bacteria living in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Yet, many people who have these bacteria in their stomach do not develop an ulcer.
The following also raise your risk for peptic ulcers:
Drinking too much alcohol
Regular use of aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Taking aspirin or NSAIDs once in a while is safe for most people.
Smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco
Being very ill, such as being on a breathing machine
Having radiation treatments
A rare condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome causes stomach and duodenal ulcers. Persons with this disease have a tumor in the pancreas. This tumor releases high levels of a hormone that increases stomach acid.
Many people believe that stress causes ulcers. It is not clear if this is true, at least for everyday stress at home.
Small ulcers may not cause any symptoms. Some ulcers can cause serious bleeding.
Abdominal pain is a common symptom, but it doesn't always occur. The pain can differ from person to person.
Other symptoms include:
Feeling of fullness -- unable to drink as much fluid
Hunger and an empty feeling in the stomach, often 1 - 3 hours after a meal
To diagnose an ulcer, your doctor will order one of the following tests:
Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD or upper endoscopy) is a special test performed by a gastroenterologist. A thin tube with a camera on the end is inserted through your mouth into the GI tract to see your stomach and small intestine.
Upper GI is a series of x-rays taken after you drink a thick substance called barium.
Upper endoscopy is also done on people who are at high risk for stomach cancer. Risk factors include being over age 45 or having symptoms such as:
Treatment involves a combination of medications to kill the H. pylori bacteria (if present), and reduce acid levels in the stomach. This strategy allows your ulcer to heal and reduces the chance it will come back.
Take all of your medications exactly as prescribed.
If you have a peptic ulcer with an H. pylori infection, the standard treatment uses different combinations of the following medications for 5 - 14 days:
Two different antibiotics to kill H. pylori, such as clarithromycin (Biaxin), amoxicillin, tetracycline, or metronidazole (Flagyl)
Proton pump inhibitors such as omeprazole (Prilosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), or esomeprazole (Nexium)
Bismuth (the main ingredient in Pepto-Bismol) may be added to help kill the bacteria
If you have an ulcer without an H. pylori infection, or one that is caused by taking aspirin or NSAIDs, your doctor will likely prescribe a proton pump inhibitor for 8 weeks.
You may also be prescribed this type of medicine if you must continue taking aspirin or NSAIDs for other health conditions.
Other medications that may be used for ulcer symptoms or disease are:
Misoprostol, a drug that may help prevent ulcers in people who take NSAIDs on a regular basis
Medications that protect the tissue lining (such as sucralfate)
If a peptic ulcer bleeds a lot, an EGD may be needed to stop the bleeding. Methods used to stop the bleeding include injecting medicine, or applying metal clips to the ulcer. Surgery may be needed if bleeding cannot be stopped with an EGD, or if the ulcer has caused a tear (perforation).
Peptic ulcers tend to come back if untreated. If you follow your doctor's treatment instructions and take all of your medications as directed, the H. pylori infection will likely be cured and you'll be much less likely to get another ulcer.
Bleeding inside the body (internal bleeding)
Gastric outlet obstruction
Inflammation of the tissue that lines the wall of the abdomen (peritonitis)
Perforation of the stomach and intestines
Calling your health care provider
Seek urgent help if you:
Develop sudden, sharp abdominal pain
Have a rigid, hard abdomen that is tender to touch
Have symptoms of shock such as fainting, excessive sweating, or confusion
Vomit blood or have blood in your stool (especially if it's maroon or dark, tarry black)
Call your doctor if:
You feel dizzy or light-headed
You have ulcer symptoms
Avoid aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and other NSAIDs. Try acetaminophen instead. If you must take such medicines, talk to your doctor first. Your doctor may:
Test you for H. pylori first
Have you take proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or an acid blocker
Have you take a drug called misoprostol
The following lifestyle changes may help prevent peptic ulcers:
Do not smoke or chew tobacco.
Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day.
Chan FKL, Lau JYW. Peptic ulcer disease. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 53.
Chey WD, Wong BC. American College of Gastroenterology guideline on the management of Helicobacter pylori infection. Am J Gastroenterol. Aug 2007;102:1808-1825.
Lanza FL, Chan FK, Quigley EM; Practice Parameters Committee of the American College of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for prevention of NSAID-related ulcer complications. Am J Gastroenterol. 2009;104:728-738.
George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.