Disease, Condition & InjuryStomach & digestive systems conditionsStomach conditions

Peptic ulcer

(PUD; Duodenal Ulcer; Ulcer, Peptic; Ulcer, Duodenal)

Peptic ulcer – Definition

Peptic ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach or the first part of the small intestine. This area of the small intestine is called the duodenum. Peptic ulcers may be named by their location:

  • Gastric ulcers — in the stomach
  • Duodenal ulcers — in the duodenum

Peptic ulcer – Causes

Upsets in the balance of stomach acid and digestive juices can lead to an ulcer. This can be caused by:

  • Bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) — common cause
  • Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — blocks the body’s ability to protect the stomach lining; common cause
  • Diseases that cause acid production to increase, such as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome

Not all people that take NSAIDs or with H pylori infection develop ulcers.

Rare causes include:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Bacterial or viral infections
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Injury
  • Severe stress (eg, surgery, trauma, head injury, shock, or burns)

Peptic ulcer – Risk Factors

Risk factors for ulcer from H pylori infection include:

  • Age: 60 or older
  • Sex: male
  • Race: Black and Hispanic
  • Lower socio-economic group
  • A crowded and unsanitary living environment
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Family history of ulcer disease
  • Type O blood

Risk factors for ulcer from anti-inflammatory drugs include:

  • Age: 60 or older
  • Sex: male
  • History of stomach upset from NSAIDs
  • Prior peptic ulcer disease
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Alcohol abuse

Peptic ulcer – Symptoms

Peptic ulcers do not always cause symptoms. Symptoms may come and go. Food may increase gastric ulcer pain. Food will often relieve duodenal ulcer pain.

Symptoms include:

  • Gnawing pain
    • May awaken you from sleep
    • May change when you eat
    • May last for a few minutes or several hours
    • Feels like unusually strong hunger pangs
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloating
  • Burping

Ulcers can cause serious problems and severe abdominal pain. Problems include:

  • Bleeding — symptoms may include:
    • Black, tarry stools
    • Vomiting what looks like coffee grounds
    • Weakness
    • Dizziness
    • Anemia
  • Perforated ulcer — a breaking through the wall of the stomach or duodenum that will cause:
    • Sudden and severe pain
  • Scar tissue that narrows and eventually closes off the outlet of the stomach to the intestines and can cause:
    • Vomiting
    • Weight loss
    • Intense pain

Peptic ulcer – Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tell your doctor about all medication you are taking.

Tests may include:

  • Rectal exam and stool guaiac test — to test for hidden blood
  • Blood test or breath test — to check for H pylori infection
  • A blood test can also check for Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
  • Upper GI series — a series of x-rays of the upper digestive system taken after drinking a barium solution
  • Endoscopy — a thin, lighted tube inserted down the throat to look inside the digestive tract used to:
    • Obtain tissue samples to test for H pylori infection or for cancer
    • Eliminate other serious causes of gastrointestinal symptoms

Peptic ulcer – Treatment

The goal is to remove the source of the problem and heal the ulcer. Gastric ulcers may take longer to heal.

Treatments include:


Some medications block or reduce acid production. Some coat the ulcer to protect it. If H pylori caused the ulcer, you will need to take a combination of drugs to kill the bacteria. This usually consists of antibiotics and a proton-pump inhibitor. It is very important to take these drugs as directed. The doctor may order tests 6-12 months after treatment. This is done to check that the bacteria are gone.

Medications may include:

  • Antacids — may provide some relief from heartburn; do not heal ulcers
  • Antibiotics (eg, amoxicillin, tetracycline, and clarithromycin)
  • Bismuth-containing drug (Pepto-Bismol)
  • Proton pump inhibitors — to decrease stomach acid production (eg, omeprazole, lansoprazole)
  • H 2 blockers — to decrease stomach acid production (eg, famotidine, ranitidine, cimetidine, nizatidine)
  • Medications to coat ulcer (eg, sucralfate)
  • Medications to protect stomach against NSAID damage (eg, misoprostol)

Lifestyle Changes

  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking interferes with ulcer healing.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages.
  • Avoid NSAIDS. This includes over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.
  • Spicy or fatty foods may worsen symptoms. You can temporarily stop eating them. Keep in mind they did not cause the ulcer. They probably do not affect ulcer healing.
  • If stress increases ulcer pain, learn and practice stress-management techniques.

Surgery and Endoscopy

You may need surgery if you have bleeding, a perforation, or an obstruction. Surgical options include:

  • Highly elective vagotomy — This is a technique that cuts only part of the vagus nerve. This surgery does not require extra drainage.
  • Vagotomy with antrectomy — This involves cutting the vagus nerve combined with removing the lower part of the stomach (antrum). The antrum makes a chemical that promotes acid production. Without that chemical, acid production drops.


This may be done to stop bleeding. A thin, lighted tube is inserted down the throat into the stomach or intestine. Then, heat, electricity, epinephrine, or a substance called “fibrin glue” can be applied to the area. This should stop the blood flow.

Vagotomy and Drainage

Vagotomy is the cutting of parts of the vagus nerve. This procedure can greatly reduce acid production. Cutting the entire nerve can also create problems with stomach. In this case, drainage must be created. Drainage may be done with one of the following:

  • Pyloroplasty — widening the opening between the stomach and the duodenum, allowing stomach contents to flow more easily into the intestine
  • Gastroduodenostomy — creating a new opening to connect the stomach and the duodenum
  • Gastrojejunostomy — creating a new opening to connect the stomach and the jejunum (the second part of the small intestine)

Two other forms of vagotomy include:

  • Highly elective vagotomy — cuts only part of the vagus nerve; does not require extra drainage
  • Vagotomy with antrectomy — the vagus nerve is cut and the lower part of the stomach (antrum) is removed; the antrum makes a chemical that promotes acid production

Peptic ulcer – Prevention

To decrease the risk of ulcer from H pylori infection:

  • Wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating or preparing food.
  • Drink water from a safe source.
  • Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking increases the chances of getting an ulcer.

To decrease the risk of ulcer from NSAIDs:

  • Use other drugs when possible for managing pain.
  • Take the lowest possible dose.
  • Do not take drugs longer than needed.
  • Do not drink alcohol while taking the drugs.
  • Ask your doctor about switching to a newer NSAID. Look for one that is less likely to cause ulcers. Talk to your doctor about taking other drugs to protect your stomach and intestine lining.
  • Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking increases the chances of getting an ulcer.

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