Most people have heard of stomach ulcers, a relatively common medical problem that causes persistent stomach pain, but few have heard of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria, the most common cause of these ulcers. According to the National Library of Medicine, up to 40% of Americans become infected with H. pylori, and many never go on to develop symptoms.
But just because H. pylori infections are common, that doesn’t mean they can’t have serious consequences, such as an increased risk of developing cancer. Understanding how infections occur and what symptoms they can cause is important both for preventing infection and for seeking treatment at the first sign of trouble.
With locations in Moline, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, Digestive Disease Specialists offers patient-centered treatment for H. pylori infections. Here’s what our team wants you to know about this common, but sometimes serious, disease.
How H. pylori infections happen
H. pylori bacteria typically are associated with sanitation problems. For instance, they may be found in unclean water or food that’s been infected during harvest or processing. In an infected person, the bacteria are usually found in saliva, stool, or tooth plaque.
Like many bacteria, H. pylori bacteria are easily spread from one person to another, usually as a result of:
- Touching an infected object
- Contact with unclean food or water
- Using an infected eating utensil
- Contact with an infected person
Anyone can develop an infection, but they tend to happen more frequently in kids.
There’s no vaccine to prevent infection, but you can reduce your chances of becoming infected, mainly with vigilant hand-washing practices. You should also avoid sharing eating utensils with other people.
Symptoms and complications of H. pylori infections
H. pylori bacteria attack the tissue that lines your stomach and small intestine. With a mild infection, you may not have any symptoms. But, in more severe infections, you may experience symptoms like:
- Stomach pain, especially when your stomach is empty
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss or poor appetite
- Dark or tarry stools
As the infection progresses, inflammation can lead to bleeding inside your stomach or small intestine (a cause of tarry, black stools listed above).
Ulcers are one of the most common complications of H. pylori infections, occurring in about 10% of infected people. Without treatment, ulcers can cause significant internal bleeding, and if they “eat through” the stomach wall, they can also cause peritonitis, a potentially deadly infection.
H. pylori infections also increase your risk of developing stomach cancer later in life, even if your infection causes no symptoms now. If you have a family history of stomach ulcers or stomach cancer, your doctor might suggest screening for the bacteria and its antibodies.
Treating H. pylori infections
Screening for H. pylori can be performed using blood tests, breath tests, or stool tests. In some cases, we may recommend an endoscopy to see inside your stomach or to remove a tiny sample of tissue for microscopic evaluation.
Most infections can be successfully treated with antibiotics. During your treatment, we may also prescribe a medication to reduce stomach acid production until the area heals. After treatment, we may recommend an additional endoscopy procedure to ensure the entire area has recovered.
If you think you may have an H. pylori infection, or if you have any type of unusual bowel or gut symptoms, don’t put off getting evaluated. Book an appointment online or over the phone with Digestive Disease Specialists today.