The human body is made up of several critical systems — one of which is the digestive system — that are essential to our health. When the digestive system isn’t working properly, the consequences can become uncomfortable and painful very quickly. In some cases, digestive issues go far beyond discomfort and lead to dangerous health conditions.
Bacteria like Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) are often behind gastrointestinal conditions, such as peptic ulcers and even stomach cancer. H. pylori infects the stomach and is particularly dangerous because most people don’t realize they have the bacterial infection until they develop painful symptoms. On the positive side, it’s possible to treat the infection, even years after it starts, but to do so, you need to recognize the potential symptoms of H. pylori.
Causes of H. Pylori
H. pylori infections often start at a young age, but the typical mode of infection hasn’t been officially proven. Most medical experts believe the bacteria spreads from kissing and other close person-to-person contact or from consuming contaminated food or water. The bacteria are widespread, with large numbers of people all over the world infected with strains. Approximately 50% of people coming to the U.S. from developing Latin countries and Eastern European countries are infected, for example.
The H. pylori bacteria doesn’t discriminate, but those living in certain conditions are more likely to be exposed. People who live with many other people are more likely to contract it, particularly if they live in close quarters. Those in developing countries are also more susceptible, especially if consistent access to clean running water is a problem. Additionally, anyone living with or having close contact with someone else who is infected is almost sure to become infected.
Symptoms of H. Pylori
Some people appear to be naturally resistant to H. pylori and never experience any symptoms or don’t experience them for many years. This makes it almost impossible to treat H. pylori early before some damage has been done to the stomach and intestines. In most cases, the first indicators of H. pylori infections appear when people start to experience the early symptoms of ulcers or gastritis.
Gastritis causes redness and swelling in the stomach lining, and ulcers cause actual sores, bleeding and eventually holes in the lining. The milder symptoms of ulcers include bloating, burping, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and weight loss. As the ulcers worsen, the symptoms escalate to include anemia and ongoing dull pain in the stomach, especially several hours after eating or when the stomach is empty. Eating or taking antacids typically alleviates the pain for a short time.
Diagnosis of H. Pylori
When patients are diagnosed with ulcers or gastritis, doctors will try to determine the cause, and that includes testing for H. pylori bacteria. Stool sample testing provides information about many different types of bacteria in the intestinal tract, while stool antigen testing looks specifically for the H. pylori bacteria. Certain blood tests can also detect H. pylori antibodies in the blood.
The H. pylori bacteria makes an enzyme known as urease. This enzyme reduces the acidity of stomach acid and weakens the stomach lining, making it easier for ulcers to develop. Breath tests can look for carbon in the breath, which indicates the presence of urease. In more extreme cases, doctors may perform an upper endoscopy, which involves running a tube with a small camera down the esophagus and into the stomach and upper intestine (duodenum). This allows them to take tissue samples as well as examine potential damage.
Treatment of H. Pylori
Fortunately, H. pylori can be treated at any stage, although the form of treatment varies based on the severity of the condition, the patient’s age and the exact symptoms. It’s common to take multiple medications to ensure the infection is eliminated. Two different antibiotics taken simultaneously can help prevent antibiotic resistance in the bacteria, while acid-reducing medications give the stomach lining a chance to heal.
Common acid reducers include histamine (H-2) blockers, proton pump inhibitors and stomach lining protectors. The most common stomach lining protector is Pepto-Bismol, a bismuth subsalicylate, which coats the stomach lining to protect it from acid. H-2 blockers prevent the production of histamine, a substance that helps the stomach make acid. Proton pump inhibitors actually stop the stomach’s acid pump from working, which inhibits the production of acid.
Complications of H. Pylori
Gastritis and peptic ulcers are the most common conditions caused by H. pylori bacteria, although not everyone infected with the bacteria will become ill. Besides pain and other uncomfortable symptoms, ulcers can cause bleeding and holes in the lining of the stomach. Depending on the position of the ulcer, it could also cause stomach blockages. In the worst cases, these bacterial infections can cause gastric cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the world.