What is a stomach ulcer?
Stomach ulcers are open, inflamed sores in the lining of the stomach. They are also known as gastric ulcers or peptic ulcers. Ulcers can also occur in the upper part of the small intestine — these are known as duodenal ulcers.
Seek medical attention immediately if you experience:
- a sudden, sharp or persistent pain in the belly
- bloody or black poo
- vomit that looks like coffee grounds with red blood in it
- being weak, light-headed, sweaty and clammy
What are the symptoms of a stomach ulcer?
Most people with a stomach ulcer do not experience any symptoms. The most common symptom is burning pain in the upper abdomen. The pain can travel to the chest and neck, bellybutton, or back.
Other less common symptoms include:
- indigestion (heartburn)
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- feeling full and bloated, or belching
- not being able to tolerate fatty foods
Sometimes, stomach ulcers can lead to more serious symptoms, such as:
- a sudden sharp pain in the stomach that gets worse
- vomiting blood (the vomit looks bright red or like coffee grounds)
- blood in your stool (poo) or black, tarry stools
- weight loss
- feeling faint
- trouble breathing
If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
What causes stomach ulcers?
The most common causes of stomach ulcers are:
- Helicobacter pylori — a type of bacteria
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen
People are more at risk of developing a stomach ulcer if they smoke or drink alcohol, or have a family history of ulcer disease.
Spicy foods do not cause stomach ulcers, but they can worsen the symptoms.
How are stomach ulcers diagnosed?
Stomach ulcers are most commonly diagnosed by endoscopy — using a flexible tube with a tiny camera that is passed into the mouth and down to the stomach. This procedure is done under general anaesthetic.
Your doctor may also order blood tests, stool tests or an x-ray. You are also likely to have tests to check for Helicobacter pylori infection. Usually this involves a breath test, or a test of the stomach lining during endoscopy.
How are stomach ulcers treated?
If you have a stomach ulcer, you may be given:
- a combination of antibiotic medicines to eradicate the Helicobacter pylori bacteria if it is present
- medicines that reduce the amount of acid the stomach produces, such as proton pump inhibitors
Some people have one of these treatments, while some have both.
If you have a stomach ulcer that was caused by taking anti-inflammatory medications, do not stop these without talking to your doctor first.
To help manage symptoms, you can also:
- stop smoking
- eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and make sure there is enough iron in your diet
- avoid foods that make symptoms worse, such as fatty meals, alcohol, tomatoes, spicy foods, coffee, chocolate or hot drinks
- lose weight if you are overweight
- take an antacid (which you can buy from a pharmacy)
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Last reviewed: June 2021