A person holding their stomach.
Up to 15% of patients with H. pylori develop peptic ulcer diseases.

What is H. Pylori?

If you do not feel sick, that means you are completely healthy, right? Maybe not. You may have a common type of bacteria in your body and be completely unaware. Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, may affect more than half the people on the planet. Some people do not show any symptoms, but others have serious health complications caused by these bacteria. So, what is H. pylori and what symptoms can it cause? Let’s find out.

H. Pylori Explained

H. pylori bacteria typically infect your stomach’s lining or stick to stomach cells, but they can damage tissue in the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) too. This bacterium makes an enzyme called urease, which neutralizes stomach acids, making them less acidic. Urease weakens the stomach’s lining, making it vulnerable. With less acid and an inability to protect itself well, the stomach succumbs to areas of inflammation, which may become open sores.

Many people with an H. pylori infection do not realize they have it because they do not experience symptoms. How people become infected is still unknown, however, researchers speculate that it may be passed from person to person through direct contact of bodily fluids, such as saliva, or spread through contaminated food or water. Infection from H. pylori usually occurs in childhood, but without treatment it may last a lifetime.

H. Pylori Symptoms

Many people never get sick from H. pylori, and because of this, never show signs or symptoms of infection. Research suggests that some people may have a higher resistance to the effect of H. pylori, making symptoms seemingly obsolete. For those who do experience symptoms, they may encounter:

  • Ache or a burning sensation in the abdomen (pain may come and go over several days/weeks and last minutes to hours)
  • Stomach pain that happens a couple of hours after eating
  • Pain that worsens when the stomach is empty (such as in the middle of the night)
  • Dull, consistent pain
  • Pain that goes away when you take antacids
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Frequent burping
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Bloating

Worrying Signs or Symptoms

Some symptoms cannot be solved by swallowing an antacid. If there are any symptoms that concern you, always see a doctor. While several of the regular symptoms are easily dismissed, do not ignore the following symptoms and seek medical care right away:

  • Severe or persistent abdominal pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bloody or black tarry stools
  • Bloody or black vomit

How to Prevent H. Pylori Infection

Research is ongoing to find out more about how people get infected with H. pylori. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent these bacteria from entering the body. As rates of H. pylori infection are higher in developing countries, it seems that the bacterium may spread through unclean food or water. Some prevention tips include:

  • Washing your hands after using the washroom and before eating
  • Eating properly prepared foods
  • Drinking water from a safe source
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H. Pylori Treatments

Once you see a doctor, they will make a diagnosis based on blood, breath, or stool tests that check for H. pylori. Some people require an upper endoscopy and biopsy to confirm a diagnosis. Once the lab results come back positive, a physician plans your care based on your overall health, the severity of infection, how you handle certain treatments, and your preferences.

Treatment for H. pylori usually includes antibiotics. Doctors tend to use at least two different drugs to prevent these bacteria from developing resistance to one particular medication.

Doctors may also prescribe an acid-suppressing drug to help heal your stomach lining. Acid suppressing drugs may include:

  • Proton pump inhibitors. These drugs stop the stomach’s acid pump from working, which inhibits acid from being produced.
  • Histamine blockers. Histamine helps make acid by triggering acid production. Blocking histamine prevents acid from being produced.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate. Also known as Pepto Bismol (or similar products), bismuth subsalicylate coats the ulcer, protecting it from stomach acid.

Other Conditions H. Pylori can Cause

Without treatment, H. pylori can develop and cause additional issues within the body. While the majority of H. pylori infections may seem like a minor nuisance, there are cases where it becomes severe enough to cause additional health conditions.

Some conditions include:

  • Stomach ulcers. H. pylori is the main cause of ulcers. Up to 15% of those with H. pylori develop peptic ulcer diseases. These painful, open sores can damage the protective lining of the stomach and the duodenum. Bad ulcers can cause bleeding, a hole in the stomach wall, or blockage that prevents food from leaving the stomach.
  • Gastritis. Inflammation of the stomach lining can irritate your stomach and lead to this condition.
  • Stomach (gastric) cancer. H. pylori is a strong risk factor for certain types of stomach cancers and some types of lymphoma in the stomach. If stomach cancer progresses and metastasizes, the prognosis may be poor and possibly fatal.

Testing for H. pylori enables affected people to get treatment before it progresses into something worse that is more difficult to treat.

H. pylori may seem like a minor nuisance for many people, but it can become more than an inconvenience if left untreated. Seeing a doctor and treating these bacteria with antibiotics may prevent some future health issues from occurring.