Have you ever been told to “stop worrying before you give yourself an ulcer?” As it turns out, there’s a lot of misinformation about what an ulcer is and how you can develop one. While stress can aggravate the symptoms of an already existing ulcer, it may surprise you to learn that it can’t cause one.
What Is an Ulcer and What Actually Causes It?
Peptic ulcers are painful, open sores in your stomach lining or small intestine. Your body produces stomach acid to help you digest food. It also produces mucous to protect your digestive tract against the acid. When you have too much acid or too little protective mucous, the lining can get inflamed and ulcers can develop. But what causes the imbalance to begin with?
The most two most common causes of ulcers are:
- An infection caused by a bacterium called helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). We don’t know exactly how H. pylori is spread, but it’s thought to be spread through personal contact or by food and water.
- Regular use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, is not classified as an NSAID. Your chances of developing an ulcer are significantly higher if you also take other medicine like steroids, SSRIs, or anticoagulants along with NSAIDs.
What Are the Symptoms of an Ulcer?
Most people with peptic ulcers don’t experience symptoms, but when they do, the most common ones are:
- Feeling of being excessively full and/or bloated after eating
- Increased gas
- Pain or burning feeling in stomach
Severe symptoms can include:
- Blood in vomit or stool
- Trouble breathing
- Unintentional weight loss
You should see a doctor if symptoms persist or if you experience extreme symptoms of an ulcer.
How are Ulcers Treated?
Your doctor can help determine the cause of your ulcer. If it’s caused by a H. pylori infection, you’ll probably need antibiotics to clear up the infection. You may also be instructed to take antacids to relieve symptoms and to cut back on NSAID use. In more severe cases, your doctor may prescribe other medications or even recommend surgery.
Ulcers aren’t just painful. Left untreated, they can be dangerous. Ignoring symptoms can lead to serious complications including internal bleeding, infection and digestive tract blockage. If you think you may have an ulcer, see your doctor.
What Can I Do to Reduce My Ulcer Symptoms?
If you have an ulcer, you can take steps to keep your symptoms from flaring up. For example, your symptoms may get worse when your stomach is empty, so you could replace your usual three large meals a day with five or six small ones. Additional suggestions include:
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, fatty or fried foods, and any other foods that seem to worsen your symptoms
- Don’t eat within three hours of going to bed
- Don’t overeat
- Don’t smoke
- Eat slowly
- Take steps to reduce and/or manage your stress
If you’re concerned you may have symptoms of an ulcer, don’t hesitate to get an evaluation. To find a gastrointestinal specialist near you, use our online physician finder.