We Know: All About Ulcers

What are ulcers?

Ulcers are damaged areas in the lining of the upper reaches of the stomach. Those that reside in the duodenum (the first part of the small bowel) are called duodenal ulcers, while those in the main stomach area are called gastric or stomach ulcers.

What causes ulcers?

Prolonged use of aspirin or other inflammatory medicines, smoking, and excessive alcohol intake are some causes of ulcers. Ulcers can also result from overly acidic diets and too much stress. As a natural part of the digestion process, acids are produced to break down food. If these digestive acids are produced at a rate beyond what is needed at the time, the acid ends up attacking the stomach lining, creating ulcers. Finally, ulcers can arise from the presence of Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that lives in the stomach.

What are the symptoms of ulcers?

Burning pain in the upper abdomen is the primary symptom of an ulcer. The pain is most acute when the stomach is empty, and common times for the pain to occur is while a person is asleep. Food or over the counter (OTC) antacids can relieve the pain. More serious, less easily treated symptoms can occur when the ulcer begins to bleed. An indication of a bleeding ulcer is when your vomit or bowel movements contain blood. Bowel movements will have a black, tar-like consistency in this situation.

Worse than a bleeding ulcer is if the ulcer produces a perforation or tear in the stomach. This can affect the performance of the stomach and cause toxic wastes passing through the stomach to enter other parts of the body.

How do you treat an ulcer?

Most early stage ulcers can be treated with the old stand-bys, OTC antacids, or a small bit of plain food, such as soup or unsalted crackers. Newer breeds of medicine such as Tagamet and Pepcid AC promise longer relief and generally deliver on this promise.

How do you prevent ulcers?

As with any medical condition, prevention is best. Changing diets to those with less acidic food intakes, quitting smoking, limiting drinking, and undertaking some form of stress reduction are all beneficial lifestyle choices that can prevent ulcers. Ulcers can start off as a relatively benign condition, but when untreated, can lead to such complications as stomach perforations where the only treatment left open is surgery.

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