H. pylori, also known as Helicobacter pylori, are bacteria that cause ulcers and stomach inflammation (gastritis). Infections caused by H. pylori are common and cause both mild and chronic symptoms depending on the severity of infection present. Treatment and a proper diagnosis of H. pylori infection are simple and generally last no longer than two weeks.
Infections are typically spread through contaminated food and water as well as person to person contact. Because H. pylori breed in areas with poor food and water sanitation, H. pylori are common in third world countries. In fact, it is estimated that around 90 percent of adults living in areas with poor sanitation can be infected with H. pylori. Only around 30 percent of adults in the United States are infected by H. pylori. A portion of these adults may have an infection and not know it as H. pylori often lies dormant within the stomach.
Often, an infection caused by H. pylori will not exhibit any symptoms at all. If symptoms do occur, they are generally mild. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, vomiting and weight loss. In rare cases where infection is severe or causes stomach ulcers, symptoms may include severe abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing and bloody vomit or stool.
About one in every six infections caused by H. pylori develops into a stomach ulcer, also known as a peptic ulcer. These are sores or lesions in the lining of the stomach or duodenum that cause abdominal pain or bleeding. Ulcers are aggravated by acid produced by the stomach and will typically worsen if the victim has not eaten or has eaten spicy or acidic food. Many peptic ulcers are small and will exhibit only mild symptoms before healing. Others are chronic and may require careful monitoring of symptoms and antibiotic treatment.
There are multiple tests used to detect the presence of H. pylori. A blood test can detect specific proteins produced by the body to fight off stomach infections and inflammation. A breath test is often used in conjunction with a drinkable radioactive carbon. Once a patient drinks the carbon, H. pylori in the stomach begin to break it down. Readings are taken shortly thereafter that can detect the broken down carbon in exhaled breath. A patient’s stool can also be examined for traces of H. pylori.
While there are no drugs used to directly eliminate H. pylori, there are several that may alleviate symptoms and speed the healing process. Drugs known as proton pump inhibitors decrease the level of acid produced by the stomach, allowing inflammation time to heal. Antibiotics are used to stem the spread of H. pylori and heal peptic ulcers. Treatment usually involves combining several drugs, such as rifabutin and amoxicillin, over the course of several days.