A peptic ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach, esophagus, or the first portion of the small intestine. Peptic ulcers may also be referred to as an ulcer.
Ulcers are crater-like sores, generally one-fourth to three-fourths inch in diameter, but sometimes one to two inches in diameter. Ulcers that form in the lining of the stomach are called gastric ulcers. Ulcers that form just below the stomach at the beginning of the small intestine in the duodenum are called duodenal ulcers. Less common ulcers occur in the esophagus and are called esophageal ulcers.
A burning stomach pain is the most common symptom of an ulcer. The pain may come and go for a few days or weeks or may bother the individual more when the stomach is empty. The pain usually goes away after eating, but may return when the stomach becomes empty again.
Peptic ulcers occur when the digestive juices that help food digest damage the walls of the stomach or duodenum. The most common cause is infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. Another cause is the long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Motrin® or Advil®). Spicy foods do not cause ulcers, but can aggravate them and make them worse.
Peptic ulcers will become more severe if not treated. Treatment may include medicines to block stomach acids or antibiotics to kill ulcer-causing bacteria. Avoiding smoking and alcohol can help decrease symptoms of ulcers. Surgery may help for ulcers that do not heal. Peptic ulcers may also heal on their own without treatment.
The American College of Gastroenterology estimates that about 20 million Americans develop at least one ulcer during their lifetime.
Although ulcers may cause discomfort, they are rarely life threatening. By understanding the causes and symptoms of ulcers and getting a diagnosis and proper treatment, most people can find relief.
The names given to specific ulcers identify their location in the digestive tract or the circumstances under which they develop. Duodenal ulcers, the most common type of peptic ulcer, occur in the first few inches of the duodenum. The duodenum is the first portion of the small intestine. Gastric ulcers, which are less common, usually occur along the upper curve of the stomach. Marginal ulcers can develop when part of the stomach has been removed surgically at the point where the remaining stomach has been reconnected to the intestine. Stress ulcers, like acute stress gastritis, can occur as a result of the stress of severe illness, skin burns, or trauma. Stress ulcers occur in the stomach and the duodenum. An esophageal ulcer is usually located in the lower section of the esophagus. Esophageal varices (veins) are dilated blood vessels within the wall of the esophagus and may have similar symptoms of esophageal ulcers such as burning.
Individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are at an increased risk for developing ulcers. GERD occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve separating the esophagus and stomach) does not close properly, allowing acid to back up into the esophagus.
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