"If you kids don't stop yelling, you'll give me an ulcer!"
"Don't worry so much. You'll give yourself an ulcer."
Have you ever heard people talk like this about ulcers? It sounds like ulcers are easy to give and easy to get. It also sounds like stress — too much worrying about stuff — is to blame. But is that the real story? Let's find out.
What Is an Ulcer?
An ulcer (say: ul-sur) is a sore, which means an open, painful wound. When people talk about ulcers, though, they usually mean peptic ulcers. These form in the stomach or the upper part of the small intestine, called the duodenum (say: doo-uh-dee-num). They cause sharp or burning stomach pain.
This pain often comes a few hours after eating. It can also happen during the night or early in the morning, when the stomach is empty. Eating something usually makes the pain go away.
Kids don't usually get peptic ulcers, but they're common in adults. Doctors say that in the United States, 1 in every 10 people will eventually get an ulcer.
What Causes Ulcers?
For almost 100 years, doctors believed that ulcers were caused by stress and spicy foods. Then, in 1982, two doctors (Barry Marshall and Robin Warren) made a great discovery. They discovered that a certain kind of bacteria lives and grows in the stomach. And these bacteria were causing most ulcers.
The type of bacteria is called Helicobacter pylori (say: hel-ih-koh-bak-tur pye-lor-ee). That's a little hard to say, so you can call it by its nickname: H. pylori.
You may be wondering: "Why was this such a big discovery?" Well, once doctors knew that bacteria caused ulcers, they could give people special medicines called antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria. Get it? No more bacteria, no more painful ulcers causing those bad stomach pains.
Here's how doctors believe the H. pylori bacteria cause ulcers:
- Bacteria weaken the protective coating of the stomach and upper small intestine.
- Acid in the stomach then gets through to the sensitive tissues lining the digestive system underneath.
- Acid and bacteria directly irritate this lining to the point where sores, or ulcers, are caused.
Who Has H. Pylori Infection?
By testing someone's blood, doctors can figure out if he or she has been exposed to H. pylori. When tested, lots of people have H. pylori infections. Almost 2 out of every 10 people younger than 40 have this infection!
But here's the weird part: Most infected people do not develop ulcers. Doctors still aren't sure why, but they think that part of the reason may depend on the individual person. It also may have something to do with the type of H. pylori or acid in the stomach.
Although H. pylori are responsible for most cases of ulcers, ulcers can happen for other reasons, too. Regularly taking a lot of pain relievers, like aspirin or ibuprofen, can cause ulcers in some people. Ulcers can also be caused by cancer of the stomach or pancreas. This happens rarely, however, and almost never in kids. Also, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes can contribute to getting an ulcer.
Going to the Doctor
Any time you have stomach problems, you should tell your mom or dad. Often, it's a good idea to go to the doctor. When you're a kid, the problem probably won't be an ulcer. But if you know any grown-ups who have burning stomach pain, tell them to go the doctor. Ulcers can get worse if they're not treated.
Doctors can do a blood test to check for H. pylori. Other tests take a kind of X-ray of the stomach and other parts of the digestive system. Another test uses a skinny, lighted tube with a little camera on the end. The tube is guided down a person's throat and stomach so a doctor can see what's going on down there.
Medicines for Ulcers
Someone who has an ulcer might get medicine to kill the H. pylori, and also may take other medicine to lessen the amount of acid in the stomach. This protects the lining of the stomach so the ulcer can heal.
Doctors are still figuring out how H. pylori bacteria get from one person to another. The bacteria have been found in saliva, so kissing may be one way! It also may spread through food, water, or vomit that has been infected with the bacteria.
So, one way to prevent ulcers is to wash your hands. This is especially important after you use the bathroom and before eating. Wash those H. pylori right down the drain!
Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: September 2012
Originally reviewed by: Michael K. Davis, MD