Helicobacter pylori(H. pylori) is a type of bacteria. These germs can enter your body and live in your digestive tract. After many years, they can cause sores, called ulcers, on the lining of your stomach or the upper part of the small intestine. For some people, an infection can lead to Stomach cancer.
Infection with H. pylori it’s common. About two-thirds of the world’s population has it in their bodies. For most people, it does not cause ulcers or any other symptoms. If you have problems, there are medications that can kill germs and help heal wounds.
As more people in the world have access to clean water and sanitation, fewer people than before are catching the bacteria. With good health habits, you can protect yourself and your children from H. pylori.
How H. pylori makes you sick
For decades, doctors thought people had stress ulcers, spicy foods, smoking or other lifestyle habits. But when scientists discovered H. pylori in 1982, they found that germs were the cause of most stomach ulcers.
After H. pylori enters your body, it attacks the lining of your stomach, which generally protects you from the acid your body uses to digest food. Once the bacteria has caused enough damage, the acid can penetrate the lining, which causes ulcers. They can bleed, cause infections, or prevent food from moving through the digestive tract.
You can have H. pylori of food, water or utensils. It is more common in countries or communities that do not have drinking water or good sewage systems. You can also catch the bacteria through contact with the Spittle or other body fluids from infected people.
Many people manage H. pylori during childhood, but adults can too. Germs live in the body for years before symptoms start, but most people will never get ulcers. Doctors are not sure why only a few people develop ulcers after an infection.
If you have an ulcer, you may feel an uncomfortable or burning pain in your belly. It can come and go, but you will probably feel more when your stomach is empty, such as between meals or in the middle of the night. It can last for a few minutes or hours. You may feel better after eating, drinking milk or taking an antacid.
Other signs of ulcer include:
Ulcers may bleed in your stomach or intestines, which can be dangerous to your health. Get medical help immediately if you experience any of these symptoms:
It is not common, but H. pylori the infection can cause stomach cancer. The disease has few symptoms at first, such as heartburn. Over time, you may notice:
Getting a Diagnosis
If you have no ulcer symptoms, your doctor will probably not test you for H. pylori. But if you have them now or have already had them, it is better to take the test. Medicines such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Ines) can also damage your stomach lining, so it’s important to find out what’s causing your symptoms so you can get the right treatment.
To start, your doctor will ask about your medical history, your symptoms and any medications you take. So they will give you a physical exam, including pressing the belly to check for swelling, tenderness or pain. You may also have:
- Blood and stool tests, that can help you find an infection
- Urea breath test. You will drink a special liquid that contains a substance called urea. Then, you will breathe in a bag, which your doctor will send to a laboratory for testing. If you have H. pylori, the bacteria will turn the urea in your body into carbon dioxide and laboratory tests will show that your breath has higher than normal gas levels.
To take a closer look at your ulcers, your doctor may use:
- Upper digestive endoscopy. In a hospital, the doctor uses a tube with a small camera, called an endoscope, to examine the throat, stomach and upper part of the small intestine. The procedure can also be used to collect a sample that will be examined for the presence of the bacteria. You may be asleep or awake during the procedure, but you will be given medication to make you more comfortable.
- Higher GI tests. In a hospital, you will drink a liquid that contains a substance called barium and your doctor will do an X-ray. The liquid lines your throat and stomach and makes them stand out clearly in the image.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan. It is a powerful X-ray that takes detailed pictures of the inside of your body.
If you have H. pylori, your doctor may also test you for stomach cancer. That includes:
- Physical exam
- Blood tests to check anemia, when your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells. It can happen if you have a bleeding tumor.
- Stool occult blood test, who checks his stool for blood that is not visible to anyone who is naked eye
- Biopsy, when the doctor removes a small piece of tissue from the stomach to look for signs of cancer. Your doctor can do this during an endoscopy.
- Tests that take detailed images of the inside of your body, such as a computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Treatment for H. pylori
If you have ulcers caused by H. pylori, you will need treatment to kill germs, heal the stomach lining and prevent the wounds from coming back. It usually takes 1 to 2 weeks of treatment to improve.
Your doctor will probably tell you to take a few different types of medications. Options include:
- Antibiotics to kill bacteria in your body, like amoxicillin, clarithromycin (Biaxin), metronidazole (Flagyl), tetracycline (Sumycin), or tinidazole (Tindamax) You will probably get at least two from that group.
- Drugs that reduce the amount of acid in the stomach by blocking the small pumps that produce it. They include dexlansoprazole (Dexilant), esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Prilosec), pantoprazole (Protonix), or rabeprazole (Aciphex)
- Bismuth subsalicylate, which can also help kill H. pylori along with your antibiotics
- Medicines that block the chemical histamine, which causes your stomach to produce more acid. These are cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Fluxid, Pepcid), nizatidine (Axid), or ranitidine (Zantac)
Your treatment may mean that you will take 14 or more pills a day for a few weeks, which seems like a lot of medicine. But it is very important to take everything that your doctor prescribes and follow your instructions. If you don’t take antibiotics the right way, the bacteria in your body can become resistant to them, making infections more difficult to treat. If your medicines to bother you, talk to your doctor about your treatment options and how you can deal with the side effects.
About 1-2 weeks after finishing treatment, the doctor may test your breathing or stool again to make sure the infection has cleared up.
You can protect yourself from getting a H. pylori infection with the same steps you follow to keep other germs away:
- Wash your hands after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food. Teach your children to do the same.
- Avoid unclean food or water.
- Do not eat anything that is not well cooked.
- Avoid food served by people who have not washed their hands.
Although stress and spicy foods do not cause ulcers, they can prevent them from healing quickly or worsening their pain. Talk to your doctor about ways to control your stress, improve your diet, and, if you smoke, how to get help to stop smoking.
What can I expect after infection with H. pylori?
Most ulcers caused by H. pylori will heal after a few weeks of treatment. If you have already taken one, you should avoid taking NSAIDs for pain, as these drugs can damage your stomach lining. If you need pain medication, ask your doctor to recommend some.
Where can I find information or support?
You can find information on H. pylori infection and ulcers American College of Gastroenterology. For information on stomach cancer, as well as online and local support groups, visit the American Cancer Society.