When you sit down to eat in the cafeteria and scarf down your hamburger and fries, you probably don’t think about what your body does with it next!  Your digest system is pretty amazing, with a lot of organs working together to break down the food that you eat into nutrients your body can use to help you grow and be strong and healthy.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems that can happen to your digestive system as you grow up — and peptic ulcers are one of them.  Read on to learn more about this common digestive issue.

What are Peptic Ulcers?

Peptic ulcers are sores that develop in different parts of your digestive tract, including your esophagus (the tube which leads from your mouth to your stomach), your stomach itself or the upper part of your small intestines (this is called your duodenum). Depending on where the ulcer is, then, doctors will label it as esophageal, gastric or duodenal.

How Do You Know if You Have a Peptic Ulcer?

There are certain signs and symptoms which many people with this condition develop. These include:

  • Pain in the upper or middle part of your stomach which can get worse at night or when your stomach is empty. It will often feel better (for a little while) after you eat or drink a glass of milk.
  • Throwing up blood
  • Stools (poo) that are tarry (black-looking) or have visible blood in them
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Losing weight without meaning to

What Causes this Problem?

This may sound gross, but you (and everyone else) has a lining of mucus in their stomachs that protects the stomach from the acids your body needs to break down food. Ulcers can happen when stomach acid wears away the mucus and begins to attack the lining of the esophagus, stomach, or small intestines.  Without this lining, the acid can irritate and inflame the unprotected organs and cause open sores to form.

The most common reasons for this to happen is due to an infection in the stomach by a specific bacteria called Hyliobacter pylori (or simply “h. pylori”). Other times, people who have chronic pain (like from arthritis) and use a lot of over the counter pain medications like ibuprofen or aspirin to feel better, can also damage their stomach and develop these ulcers. For still others, emotional stress can cause the problem or make it worse.

To make matters more complicated, there are also other medical conditions that can lead to this problem. One of them is called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.  This causes growths in the stomach called gastrinomas which produce excess stomach acid.

In short, there are a lot of different possible causes for this problem!

What Puts You at Risk for This Problem?

Many people believe that this problem is caused by eating too much spicy or rich foods. Actually, though, the biggest risk factors for developing peptic ulcers are smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. The good news is that these are two risk factors that people can learn to control in order to avoid this problem.

Can Peptic Ulcers Cause Complications?

Unfortunately, peptic ulcers can cause several different complications, some of which are very serious. They include:

  • Uncontrolled internal bleeding from the open sores; sometimes you lose so much blood from this that you have to have a transfusion, which means that doctors will put someone else’s blood into you to make up for the loss.
  • Infections
  • A buildup of scar tissue which can make it harder for the digestive system to work right

How Does the Doctor Know if You Have a Peptic Ulcer?

There are a lot of different kinds of evidence that a doctor will use to diagnose a peptic ulcer. These can include:

  • Your signs and symptoms
  • Medical history/family history and physical exam
  • Testing for the presence of the h. Pylori bacteria in your blood or stool
  • Imaging tests like endoscopies, which use a small camera to allow the doctor to look at your esophagus and stomach directly
  • X-rays of the upper part of your digestive tract

How are Peptic Ulcers Treated?

There are a number of different ways a peptic ulcer can be treated.  The plan that you and your doctor will come up with will depend on how severe the problem is and what is causing it to begin with. Treatments can include any of the following:

  • Stopping the use of certain medications (such aspirin) that might be causing the problem and using medications like Tylenol instead
  • Taking antibiotics for an h. Pylori infection
  • Medications to help control stomach acid, such as Prilosec or Zantac
  • Medications to coat and protect the lining of the stomach, such as Carafate
  • An overall healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, stress management techniques and little or no use of alcohol or tobacco

So peptic ulcers are definitely a problem, especially for adults. Fortunately, there are a lot of treatments available and lifestyle changes that people can make in order to improve this condition.