What You Need to Know About Ulcers

woman holding stomach in discomfort

Stress, spicy foods and smoking were once thought to cause ulcers. Now we know that most ulcers are actually caused by bacteria in the stomach or certain medications, and helpful treatments are available. Read on to learn more about ulcers.

What are ulcers? 

Ulcers are painful sores found in the lining of the:

  • Stomach (known as a gastric ulcer) or
  • Small intestine (known as a duodenal ulcer)

In general, ulcers are often called “peptic” ulcers to indicate they occur in the digestive tract.

What causes ulcers?

Ulcers may be caused by the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria. However, not everyone with H. pylori will develop an ulcer. Ulcers may also be caused by regularly taking certain medication, such as aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Spicy foods, stress, smoking, and alcohol do not cause ulcers, but if you have an ulcer, may make your pain worse.

What are the symptoms of ulcers? 

The most common symptom of ulcers is chronic pain in the abdomen like a burning or gnawing feeling.  This pain can happen just after meals for gastric ulcers, and two to three hours after meals or at night with duodenal ulcers. Other symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting, sometimes with blood
  • Bloating
  • Dark, tar-like stools
  • Unintended weight loss 

In some cases, ulcers may not show any symptoms. This is most common in the elderly.

How are ulcers treated?               

Ulcers are sores that need to heal. Your doctor will treat your ulcer based on what is causing it.

  • If your ulcer is caused by H.pylori bacteria, you may need to take antibiotics and acid-reducing medication.
  • If your ulcer is caused by a certain medication, you may need to stop taking that medication. 

How can I manage my ulcer symptoms? 

  • Limit foods and beverages that make your ulcer symptoms feel worse. This can include spicy foods made with chilies, cayenne, black or hot pepper.
  • Limit alcohol. Alcohol increases stomach acid and may interfere with some medications used to treat ulcers. Find out the recommendations for limiting alcohol here.
  • Limit caffeine to no more than 400mg per day (about 3 cups of brewed coffee) if you have pain or other symptoms when you drink coffee.

What may help prevent an ulcer?

  • Get enough fibre, especially soluble fibre. Soluble fibre is found in vegetables, fruits, oatmeal and oat bran, barley, peanut butter, nuts, and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils. 
  • Follow Canada’s Food Guide to get a variety of foods from all four food groups.

Other tips

  • Talk with your health care provider if you take NSAIDs or medications that contain caffeine or acetylsalicylic acid.
  • Limit or stop smoking. Smoking increases the risk of ulcers and can make it harder for them to heal.

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Last Update – January 3, 2019

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