That burning sensation in your stomach could be a peptic ulcer. But before you blame the tangy buffalo wings you ate for dinner last night, know that spicy foods could add to your distress, but they're not the original cause.
What is a Peptic Ulcer?
A peptic ulcer is a painful sore on your stomach lining or near the top of the small intestine, called the duodenum. These sores develop from repeated exposure to strong gastric acids, which are produced by your stomach to digest food.
Peptic ulcers include ulcers that occur in the stomach, called gastric ulcers or stomach ulcers, and ulcers that develop in the small intestine, called duodenal ulcers, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG).
All told, peptic ulcers affect more than 4 million people in the United States each year, says Harvard Health. One in 10 people will develop a peptic ulcer at some point in their lifetime.
However, nearly 75 percent of people with peptic ulcers have no symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. When symptoms do occur, they're typically a burning sensation in the stomach, a feeling of fullness, heartburn, loss of appetite, bloating and nausea.
The most common symptom is the burning sensation — the pain can last minutes or hours and usually occurs either a few hours after eating or late at night, notes the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Often the burning can be relieved by eating foods that buffer stomach acid or by taking an acid-reducing medication, commonly known as a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) or an H2 blocker, available over the counter or by prescription, states ACG.
To diagnose a peptic ulcer, your doctor is likely to order certain tests after taking your medical history and examining you, ACG adds. These might include a lab test to check for bacteria in your system, an endoscopy to visualize the affected areas or what's called an upper GI series — X-rays taken after you drink a barium solution, a chalky white liquid that coats your digestive tract and helps make any ulcers more visible.
Read more: Esophageal Ulcer Diet
Myth or Fact: Foods Cause Ulcers
Before the 1980s, it was a commonly held belief that certain foods were behind stomach ulcers, but a landmark study published in 1984 by The Lancet found that most stomach ulcers are due to colonization by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori for short. And diet was off the hook as a cause.
"There are no foods that cause stomach ulcers," says Patricia Raymond, MD, a gastroenterologist with Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach. "Ulcers can be caused by caustic medications, poor blood flow in the stomach lining after a surger or by the bacteria H. pylori."
Among the most common drugs causing ulcers are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and aspirin. Usually, older people are more susceptible to getting ulcers from them. Less common causes include diseases such as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, in which the stomach produces excess amounts of acid, says NIDDK.
Read more: Remedies for Ulcer Pain
Peptic Ulcers and Your Diet
Though they don't cause peptic ulcers, eating spicy foods, smoking, drinking coffee and alcohol and feeling stressed can worsen any symptoms, says Mayo Clinic. And, though it's a myth that you must eat a completely bland diet as part of peptic ulcer treatment, you might want to avoid all these culprits that can get in the way of speedy healing, further irritate the lining of your stomach and cause inflammation of your ulcer.
The key to minimizing peptic ulcer discomfort is eliminating foods that cause you repeated distress. Keeping a food log may help you identify your particular trigger foods. According to Mayo Clinic, many people with peptic ulcer experience more symptoms on an empty stomach.
Work with your doctor from diagnosis through treatment — it takes antibiotics to knock out the H. pylori infection — to stop the burning sensation once and for all.
Is This an Emergency?
- American College of Gastroenterology: “Peptic Ulcer Disease.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Peptic Ulcer — Symptoms and Causes"
- The Lancet: “Unidentified Curved Bacilli in the Stomach of Patients with Gastritis and Peptic Ulceration”
- Harvard Health: “Peptic Ulcer”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms and Causes of Peptic Ulcers (Stomach Ulcers)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Peptic Ulcer — Diagnosis and Treatment"