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An ulcer is an open sore that can be located in many places including on the skin and in the stomach and esophagus. A stomach ulcer is also called a peptic ulcer and is often caused by a bacterial infection and even some medications. The ulcer is essentially the process of the acid eating away at the stomach lining due to an excess of the acid or a decrease in the mucous that normally covers the stomach. Ulcers can be treated with medication and by avoiding anything that might irritate the ulcer such as spicy foods, salty foods and anything with an acidic base to it. It is important for ulcers to be treated as soon as possible so that they do not become worse or grow in size. Only a doctor can diagnose an ulcer appropriately. It can cause severe pain in the abdomen and at times provide a symptom similar to heartburn.

Causes, Risk Factors and Complications

There is a mucous layer in the digestive tract that is responsible for protecting against damage from acid and the development of future ulcers. There are situations, however, where an increase in the production of acid or a decrease in the mucous layer can cause damage to the esophagus, small intestine or stomach, which causes an ulcer to form. Some of the causes for ulcers in the digestive tract include: the presence of helicobacter pylori or H. pylori bacteria, overuse of pain relievers and medications such as bisphosphonates. It was once believed that stress caused ulcers, though now it is known that stress only exacerbates an already existing ulcer. When ulcers are left untreated, a number of complications can occur. Because these complications are serious and even life threatening, seeking assistance from a medical provider is essential. Some of the most common complications associated with ulcers include: internal bleeding, scar tissue development and serious abdominal cavity infection known as Peritonitis.

Signs, Symptoms and Tests

The most common symptom associated with an ulcer is burning pain, which is caused by the ulcer and then aggravated by the presence of stomach acid near the ulcerated area. This pain can occur anywhere between the breastbone and the navel and can flare up or feel worse at night. It may be relieved temporarily by acid-buffering foods or medications and may disappear and then return at seemingly random intervals. Other symptoms associated with ulcers include: vomiting blood, dark blood in the stool, appetite changes, unexplainable weight loss and vomiting or nausea.

A physician will test for the presence of H. pylori bacteria when diagnosing an ulcer. This may include blood tests, stool tests and even breath tests to detect the bacteria. The physician may also recommend endoscopy, which involves using a scope in order to examine the digestive system. Barium swallows or upper gastrointestinal series, which involves using barium and X-ray to scan the digestive system including the stomach, the esophagus and the small intestine, may also be recommended.

Treatment, Drugs and Prevention

The treatment for ulcers involves a multifaceted approach to healing. Physicians will recommend the use of antibiotic medications to kill bacteria and medications to deal with the acid. This may include medications for blocking the production of acid, medications for reducing the production of acid, antacids to neutralize the stomach acid and medications that protect the stomach lining and the lining of the small intestine in order to promote healing.