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A young woman snacks on a plate of assorted fruits to help improve her digestive health.

What are ulcers?

Ulcers are open sores or lesions that form on the skin or the internal lining of the body, such as the stomach or intestines. They can be caused by a variety of factors, including infections, inflammation, injury, or exposure to certain irritants or chemicals. The most common types of ulcers are peptic ulcers, which form in the stomach or duodenum (the first part of the small intestine), and mouth ulcers, which are small, painful sores that develop in the mouth or on the lips.

What are the types of ulcers?

  • Peptic ulcers are the most common type of ulcer and occur in the stomach or small intestine. They are usually caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) or by long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Mouth ulcers, also known as canker sores, develop inside the mouth and can be painful. They are often caused by stress, injury to the mouth, or an underlying health condition.
  • Genital ulcers develop on the genitals and can be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as herpes or syphilis.
  • Venous ulcers occur on the lower leg or ankle and are usually caused by poor blood circulation in the veins.
  • Arterial ulcers also occur on the lower leg or ankle but are caused by poor blood circulation in the arteries.
  • Pressure ulcers, also known as bedsores, develop when there is prolonged pressure on a particular area of the body, such as a bedridden patient's back or hips.
  • Diabetic ulcers develop in people with diabetes and usually occur on the feet or legs. They are caused by poor blood circulation and nerve damage.

What are the symptoms of ulcers?

The symptoms of ulcers can vary depending on the type and location of the ulcer. However, common symptoms of ulcers include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the affected area, which can be dull or sharp
  • Burning sensation in the stomach or chest (in the case of peptic ulcers)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Bloating and belching
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Dark, tarry stools (in the case of stomach ulcers)
  • Bloody stools (in the case of intestinal ulcers)
  • Fever or chills (in the case of infected ulcers)
  • Redness or swelling around the affected area (in the case of skin ulcers)

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with a primary care provider today.

How do physicians diagnose ulcers?

  • Endoscopy: This is a procedure where a thin, flexible tube with a camera is inserted through the mouth or rectum to view the digestive tract and identify any ulcers.
  • Imaging tests: Physicians may use X-rays, CT scans, or ultrasounds to identify ulcers in areas like the stomach, intestines, or legs.
  • Blood tests: A provider may order blood tests to check for H. pylori infection or to identify other underlying medical conditions.
  • Stool tests: Your primary care provider may ask for stool samples to check for H. pylori infection or to look for blood in the stool.
  • Biopsy: During an endoscopy, a tissue sample may be taken from the affected area for examination under a microscope to confirm the presence of an ulcer and rule out other conditions.

How to treat ulcers

The treatment for ulcers depends on the underlying cause of the ulcer, the severity of the symptoms, and the individual's overall health. Common treatments for ulcers include:

  • Medications: Your physician may prescribe antibiotics to treat H. pylori infection, or acid-suppressing medications, like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or H2 blockers, to reduce stomach acid production and promote healing.
  • Antacids: Over-the-counter antacids can help neutralize stomach acid and relieve symptoms like heartburn.
  • Lifestyle changes: Avoiding alcohol, spicy foods, and tobacco can help reduce symptoms and promote healing. Eating smaller, more frequent meals and managing stress may also be helpful.
  • Surgery: In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat complications like bleeding, perforation, or obstruction.
  • Treating underlying medical conditions: If an underlying medical condition like diabetes or vascular disease contributes to the development of ulcers, treating that condition can help reduce the risk of developing additional ulcers.

Our experienced, board-certified gastroenterologists serve patients throughout the Greater Houston area. No matter where you live or which location you choose, you can trust that we will provide the same patient-centered standards of quality care to everyone.

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