Peptic Ulcer Disease

What is a peptic ulcer?

A peptic ulcer is a break in the inner lining of the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum. A peptic ulcer of the stomach is called a gastric ulcer; of the duodenum, a duodenal ulcer; and of the esophagus, an esophageal ulcer. Peptic ulcers occur when the lining of these organs is corroded by the acidic digestive (peptic) juices which are secreted by the cells of the stomach. A peptic ulcer differs from an erosion because it extends deeper into the lining of the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum and excites more of an inflammatory reaction from the tissues that are eroded.

What are the causes of peptic ulcers?

No single cause has been found for ulcers. However, it is now clear that an ulcer is the end result of an imbalance between digestive fluids in the stomach and duodenum. Ulcers can be caused by:

  • Infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
  • Use of painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen, ibuprofen, and many others available by prescription. Even safety-coated aspirin and aspirin in powered form can frequently cause ulcers.
  • Excess acid production from gastrinomas, tumors of the acid producing cells of the stomach that increases acid output (seen in Zollinger-Ellison syndrome).

What are symptoms of a peptic ulcer?

Pain is the most common symptom

Burning pain is the most common peptic ulcer symptom. The pain is caused by the ulcer and is aggravated by stomach acid coming in contact with the ulcerated area. The pain typically may

  • Be felt anywhere from your navel up to your breastbone
  • Be worse when your stomach is empty
  • Flare at night
  • Often be temporarily relieved by eating certain foods that buffer stomach acid or by taking an acid-reducing medication
  • Disappear and then return for a few days or weeks

Other signs and symptoms

Less often, ulcers may cause severe signs or symptoms such as:

  • The vomiting of blood — which may appear red or black
  • Dark blood in stools or stools that are black or tarry
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Appetite changes

What is the treatment for peptic ulcers?

Treatment for peptic ulcers depends on the cause. Treatments can include:

  • Antibiotic medications to kill H. pylori. If H. pylori is found in your digestive tract, your doctor may recommend a combination of antibiotics to kill the bacterium. You'll likely need to take antibiotics for two weeks, as well as additional medications to reduce stomach acid.
  • Medications that block acid production and promote healing. Proton pump inhibitors reduce stomach acid by blocking the action of the parts of cells that produce acid. These drugs include the prescription and over-the-counter medications omeprazole, lansoprazole, rabeprazole, esomeprazole and pantoprazole.
  • Medications to reduce acid production. Acid blockers — also called histamine (H-2) blockers — reduce the amount of stomach acid released into your digestive tract, which relieves ulcer pain and encourages healing. Available by prescription or over-the-counter, acid blockers include the medications ranitidine, famotidine, cimetidine and nizatidine.
  • Antacids that neutralize stomach acid. Antacids neutralize existing stomach acid and can provide rapid pain relief. Side effects can include constipation or diarrhea, depending on the main ingredients.
  • Medications that protect the lining of your stomach and small intestine. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications called cytoprotective agents that help protect the tissues that line your stomach and small intestine.

Options include the prescription medications sucralfate and misoprostol.