We all probably know someone who has complained of stomach troubles due to stress. Indigestion, stomach pain, and ulcers have long been associated with chronic stress. Science now tells us there is a much more common cause of stomach troubles that is all around us.
The Helicobacter pylori bacterium is estimated to exist in at least half to two-thirds of humans, often without causing any symptoms. For some of us, H.pylori infection can be very uncomfortable, and can possibly lead to serious conditions like stomach cancer.
What Is H. pylori Infection?
Helicobacter pylori is a type of bacteria that can be found in a large percentage of the world's population. Rates of infection are higher in developing countries, with the lowest rates of infection existing in industrialized nations like the United States were rates can drop to as low as 20-30%. Even in industrialized countries, infection rates are still higher among Hispanics, people of African descent, and among the elderly regardless of ethnic background. No matter where you are, lack of access to clean water and a reliable sewage system are recognized as risk factors resulting in infection.
H.pylori bacterial infections damage to tissues in the lining in your stomach and part of the small intestine known as the duodenum. H. pylori infections of the stomach are the most common cause of gastritis and peptic ulcer disease, though there can be other reasons for these conditions.
Helicobacter pylori bacteria burrow into the lining of your stomach, causing the stomach and small intestine to become chronically inflamed. This inflammation is caused by your body continuing to produce stomach acid whether or not there if food present to be digested. Normally, your stomach only produces acid in response to hormones associated with digestion. This allows the acid to help dissolve food, but not harm the lining of the stomach itself. When acid is present between meals, the extra acid eventually wears away at the mucosal lining of the stomach.
If the irritation of an infection keeps your body producing extra stomach acid, holes in the stomach lining known as stomach ulcers can develop. This extra acid is also passed into the small intestine, where the acid will continue to produce irritation and erode the lining of the duodenum. These infections should be taken very seriously, as there is a link between long-term infections from Helicobacter pylori and cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of H. pylori Infection?
Symptoms of Helicobacter pylori infections are, not surprisingly, centered around the normal functions of your digestive tract. Stomach pain is common, as well as a gnawing or burning sensation in the stomach. Bloating in the abdomen, belching and an increase in gas is also common. If you have an H. pylori infection, you may also experience fatigue and the feeling of being full even when you have only eaten a small about of food. You might also find that the abdominal pain is worse when there is no food in your system, as there is nothing in your digestive tract to soak up the extra acid your stomach is producing.
Some of the more dramatic and identifiable symptoms of H. pylori infections are shown in what comes out of you. Nausea is often associated with these infections. Vomiting is common, and you may find blood or a coffee ground-like material in your vomit. At the other end, a common sign of H. pylori gastritis is black, tarry stool.
What Causes H. pylori Infection?
The first step in a Helicobacter pylori infection is having the bacteria present in your system in the first place. Rates of infection are higher in less developed countries, particularly those with less access to clean water and reliable sewer systems. In addition to contaminated water, saliva and other bodily fluids of infected people are also capable of transferring the bacteria.
There is no clear answer to why some people get H. pylori infections and others don’t. Since a large percentage of the population has the bacteria present in their bodies, yet only a small percentage of people exhibit symptoms, there must be other causes for the presence of bacteria to trigger a full-blown infection.
Even in people who do develop symptoms, it may take years for an H. pylori infection to become evident. Many people are infected as children, though symptoms do not show up until years later, if at all. It is possible to become infected as an adult as well, though these rates of infection are typically lower.
What Tests Diagnose H. pylori?
Before your doctor begins testing you for any possible infection, he or she will likely ask you a lot of questions. These will include asking about other lifestyle factors such as alcohol use, whether or not you use tobacco, and if you have been taking anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen, as all of these can lead to irritation of the stomach lining.
Testing for an H. pylori infection can be done in many ways, some of which are more invasive than others. If your doctor suspects you may have an infection, he or she will likely recommend a series of tests to determine whether an infection is the source of your symptoms.
A breath test is the least invasive test that can signal an H. pylori infection. When testing your breath, your doctor is looking for elevated levels of gasses that are common in the presence of an H. pylori infection. Blood tests are also part of any diagnostic process. These tests can also reveal other conditions like anemia in addition to indicating the presence of an H. pylori infection.
Analysis of stool and urine samples are also common when investigating a possible infection. Stool tests are important in a wide variety of gastrointestinal conditions, especially those where several diseases can produce common symptoms. Stool samples are one way to more clearly identify what might be going on inside you.
The most conclusive way to determine whether you have an H. pylori infection is to undergo a procedure called an upper endoscopy. An endoscopy involves threading a small tube, called an endoscope, containing a camera down your esophagus to visually inspect the stomach and the first part of the intestines. During an endoscopy, it is also possible to remove tissue samples to perform a biopsy in an attempt to confirm the presence of H. pylori bacteria
What Medications Treat H. pylori Infection?
Treatment for H. pylori infections involves several different elements. Rather than simply taking a drug and calling it a day, you may have to make lifestyle changes as well as medication to allow your GI tract to heal.
Antibiotics will likely be a part of your treatment plan. There are several types of drugs such as clarithromycin (Biaxin), metronidazole (Flagyl), and tetracycline (Achromycin) available. It is also likely your doctor may recommend more than one of these drugs to increase the chances of eliminating your infection.
In addition to killing off the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, your doctor will likely prescribe drugs designed to lower the amount of acid in your stomach. Since the H. pylori bacteria cause the stomach to produce more acid than it should, combating this is a necessary part of the healing process. One class of these important drugs are proton-pump inhibitors. These drugs, including esomeprazole (Nexium), rabeprazole (Aciphex), lansoprazole (Prevacid), dexlansoprazole (Dexilant), omeprazole (Prilosec), and pantoprazole (Protonix) actively lower the amount of acid in the stomach by preventing the chemical production of acid release from taking place.
Another pathway to reducing the level of acid in your stomach is by using drugs called histamine blockers. These drugs, also known as H2 blockers have the same end goal as proton-pump inhibitors but work in a different way to achieve their goal. Famotidine (Fluxid, Pepcid), cimetidine (Tagamet), nizatidine (Axid), and ranitidine (Zantac) are all common versions of this drug, and many people will already be familiar with their brand names.
Drugs are only part of the picture, though. To give your GI tract a chance to heal, you will also want to eliminate other irritants that may be contributing to your symptoms or possibly slowing the healing process. Your doctor will likely recommend you stop consuming alcohol or tobacco. If you have been using over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin, you may need to lower your dosage or look for other forms of pain management, as these drugs are known to damage the gastrointestinal tract if taken too regularly or for too long.
Talk to Your Doctor About H. Pylori
Anytime blood appears in your stool or vomit, you should talk to your healthcare provider immediately. These can signal a host of life-threatening conditions and are signals to take whatever is going on inside of you very seriously. It is challenging to deal with the abdominal pain and bloating of an H.pylori infection, but the risk of stomach cancer makes this kind of infection worth paying attention to.
If you have already visited your doctor and they confirm you have an H.pylori infection, don't be alarmed. There are treatment options available that can keep your infection from taking over your life. If caught early enough, and treated properly, an H.pylori infection and the symptoms stemming from it can be treated to provide relief. Request an appointment today at Gastroenterology Associates today to learn more about your risk factors, what treatment options are available and what you can do to help manage your symptoms before your infection causes serious damage to your body.