Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacteria responsible for most of the ulcers that infect the gastrointestinal tract. Approximately 20 percent of people in the United States under the age of 40 have H. pylori in their system. Additionally, about half the population over the age of 60 are also infected. Even with the high amount of infections, most people do not develop ulcers and remain completely asymptomatic. H. pylori is found in the saliva, so there is a possibility of spreading it through activities like kissing. However, the main mode of infection is through food and water.
H. pylori works on the acidic nature of the stomach’s acid and slowly degrades the lining that protects the stomach tissue and small intestines from the low pH. As the protective layer erodes, the bacteria infect the tissue, causing a sore. Additionally, H. pylori survives the stomach’s strong acid by neutralizing it with enzymes secreted by the bacteria. Once it erodes the protective lining, it burrows into the tissue, causing infection.
H. pylori is one of the main contributors for peptic ulcers. Peptic ulcers are sores on the stomach or duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine just below the stomach. It was long thought that food or stress causes ulcers, but they are caused by several factors including bacterial infection, cancer or medications such as aspirin.
Pain in the abdominal area is the most common symptom of H. pylori and accompanying ulcers. The symptoms may be dull and only come during intervals of time, sometimes dormant for weeks. Most ulcer attacks are at night when the stomach is empty, and it’s relieved after eating. Antacids help relieve symptoms from H. pylori.
Diagnosis of H. pylori is done through blood, breath, stool and tissue tests. Blood is the most common test since the body will develop antibodies against the bacteria. For more severe cases, the doctor may perform a tissue test, which involves more invasive measures. For tissue tests, doctors use an endoscope to take a biopsy, which is then grown in a culture.
Treatment for H. pylori is antibiotics in conjunction with medications that lower the stomach acid to help the tissue heal and redevelop the protective lining. H2 blockers are used to suppress antihistamines, which are compounds that induce stomach acid production. In addition, proton pump inhibitors are used to suppress the amount of stomach acid. These medications combined kill the bacteria and give the stomach tissue the opportunity to heal, relieving the patient from ulcers.