Stomach ulcers, often called peptic ulcers, are painful sores that develop in the lining of the stomach. They occur when the thick layer of mucus that protects the stomach from digestive juices is reduced, thus allowing the digestive acids to eat away at the tissues of the stomach lining.
Peptic ulcers usually form in the stomach, however they can also develop in the small intestine (a part called the duodenum) or the esophagus.
Stomach ulcers are a common problem. One in 10 adults can expect to deal with painful ulcers at one point or another. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, an estimated 4 million Americans have peptic ulcer disease.
No single cause has been found for stomach ulcers. However, experts report that an imbalance between digestive fluids in the stomach and duodenum can cause an ulcer. Most ulcers are caused by an infection from a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).
Other causes include long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and excess acid production (hyperacidity) in the stomach caused by gastrinomas or Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, a rare disease.
For many years, it was believed that high stress led to increased production of stomach acid, in turn causing a stomach ulcer to form. However, stress is not the cause, but it is a risk factor.
Along with stress, other factors that increase your risk for ulcers include excessive drinking, smoking or chewing tobacco, family history of stomach ulcers, being over 50 years old and radiation treatment to the area.
It’s important to promptly treat an ulcer, as when left untreated, the acid can eat into the stomach wall, causing perforation and bleeding. This is why it is important to know the signs and symptoms of an ulcer, so you can get a timely diagnosis and treatment can be planned out.
Here are the top 10 signs and symptoms of a stomach ulcer you should not ignore.
1. Pain in Your Stomach
As sores occur on the stomach lining, one of the most common symptoms of a stomach ulcer is pain in the stomach. The pain can be felt anywhere between the breastbone and belly button. The pain is often described as dull, achy or a burning sensation.
This type of pain is usually caused by the ulcer, but it may be aggravated by the stomach acid when it comes into contact with the ulcerated area.
Depending upon the severity of the condition, the pain can last for a few minutes to several hours. Also, the pain can come and go for days or weeks.
The pain can also get worse at night and feel worse when the stomach is empty. The pain feels better temporarily after eating a small meal or taking an antacid.
However, keep in mind that stomach ulcers are not always painful. At times, people suffering from this problem do not experience stomach pain but may experience other symptoms.
Heartburn is usually a symptom of acid reflux disease, but it may also be associated with a stomach ulcer.
If the burning sensation in the chest begins to subside with water or an over-the-counter antacid, then it is not a matter of concern. However, consistent heartburn, regardless of what you eat, may indicate a stomach ulcer.
Heartburn due to an ulcer also causes you to burp or hiccup excessively after eating.
As heartburn causes a lot of discomfort, see a doctor to find out the exact cause and treat it immediately.
Bloating is another initial symptom of a stomach ulcer. People who have an ulcer often complain of a feeling of bloating, specifically in their midsection.
Bloating accompanied by abdominal pain, swelling in the abdomen and a feeling of fullness may be another tip-off to this condition.
You may also have the urge to burp a lot more often than usual, even without eating anything.
Unexplained abdominal bloating continuing on-and-off over a long period of time is never a good sign. Consult your doctor about the problem immediately.
In addition to stomach pain, an ulcer may also cause you to have indigestion or dyspepsia. In fact, indigestion is a common issue for those who suffer from a peptic ulcer.
As the ulcers can affect the gastrointestinal organs in the stomach and opening of the small intestine, they cause both to function abnormally. This in turn affects the digestion process and leads to indigestion.
The symptom of indigestion may fluctuate in intensity and frequency.
Nausea, the sensation that feels like you need to vomit, can be another sign of a peptic ulcer. Nausea can be prolonged or acute and short-lived.
As the ulcers grow, there is a reduced level of digestive juices, which hampers the overall digestion process.
Any kind of interference with normal digestion and excretion processes can cause episodes of nausea and at times vomiting, too.
The imbalance of digestive fluids in the stomach can lead to mild to severe nausea, occurring mostly in the morning when the stomach is empty.
If nausea is prolonged, it can become a debilitating symptom for someone with an ulcer. Hence for prolonged nausea, a visit to your doctor is a must.
6. Loss of Appetite
People who have stomach ulcers also notice a sudden drop in their appetite. This can be due to sudden and intense stomach pains.
It has been observed that sudden stomach pain that comes after eating a meal leads to fear of eating. People prefer not to eat anything to avoid the bout of pain.
Remember, significant changes in appetite can make you weak and tired, which can make the condition even worse.
If you have a loss of appetite continuing for no apparent reason or accompanied by other symptoms like bloating, it should be diagnosed immediately.
7. Fatty Food Intolerance
Though commonly associated with gallstones, fatty food intolerance could also be related to peptic ulcer disease.
Intolerance to fatty foods is primarily caused by visceral sensitization and gastroduodenal dysmotility, particularly in case of pyloric channel ulcers.
Other food-provoked symptoms include abdominal pain that worsens with eating, feeling of fullness and early satiety.
When suffering from peptic ulcers, it is best to avoid rich and fatty foods as they increase acid production which in turn irritates the stomach lining. Also, try to steer clear of acid producing beverages like coffee (with or without caffeine), soda drinks and alcohol.
8. Unexplained Weight Loss
For some stomach ulcer patients, unexplained weight loss is a prominent sign.
Weight loss occurs due to the lack of appetite, mixed with the nausea and bouts of vomiting that an ulcer can bring.
In some people, weight loss occurs even after eating the same amount of food they normally would.
Though people consider weight loss as a feat, an unexplained drop in weight is not a positive sign. Intentional weight loss from dieting and exercise is one thing. You must consult a doctor immediately to find out the exact reason behind unexplained weight loss.
9. Stool Discoloration
A change in stool color is another sure sign of a peptic ulcer. In fact, you should seek urgent medical advice if you pass dark, sticky and tar-like stools.
Bleeding in the stomach due to an ulcer can lead to a change in the stool color, ranging from light yellow to black. This change in color, and also consistency, occurs due to the chemical reactions to blood within the intestine that are caused by digestive enzymes.
When an ulcer is getting more severe, your stool can even carry tinges of blood and appear pasty or darker.
As the color of your stool says a lot about your health, any change in stool color should be reported to your doctor.
10. Blood in Vomit
Blood in your vomit along with pain in your tummy is another serious indication of a stomach ulcer that you should not ignore at all. In some cases, the vomit may look like coffee grounds.
This is a sign that the ulcer has eroded through the stomach or broken a blood vessel and requires intensive treatment. Scar tissue development is another explanation behind drops of blood in vomit.
Blood can also occur in vomiting when the ulcer or inflammation damages an underlying artery.
Vomiting blood can be a frightening experience, and it is important to consult a doctor to find out the reason behind it.
If you feel you have a few of these symptoms, set up an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. It is important to treat the problem timely or else it can lead to serious health problems and complications.