Stomach ulcer

Stomach ulcers (peptic, gastric or duodenal ulcers) can be easily treated with medication but you may need some tests in hospital. They should heal within a few months.

Check if it’s a stomach ulcer

The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is pain in the centre of your tummy, below your ribs.

Stomach ulcer pain may:

  • start or feel better after eating
  • last from a few minutes to a few hours
  • wake you up in the middle of the night

Not all stomach ulcers cause pain. You might notice other symptoms instead, such as:

  • loss of appetite
  • feeling and being sick
  • burping or bloating after eating
  • losing weight without trying

When it's something else

These symptoms don't always mean you have a stomach ulcer.

Indigestion and heartburn both cause similar symptoms and it may be hard to tell the difference.

How to ease stomach ulcer pain

You can take medicine called antacids to ease the pain. You can buy these from pharmacies and supermarkets.

It’s best to take the medicine after eating. On a full stomach they’ll last up to 3 hours. On an empty stomach they’ll only last 20 minutes to an hour.

Antacids can also treat indigestion and heartburn.

See a GP if:

  • you regularly get stomach ulcer symptoms
  • your symptoms keep coming back after taking antacids

Without treatment, there's a small chance that stomach ulcers can become very serious.

Call 999 or go to A&E if you:

  • have sudden, severe stomach pain
  • have pain when you touch your stomach
  • are vomiting blood or a ground coffee like substance
  • have bloody or black, sticky poo

These could be signs of something more serious. You may need emergency treatment or surgery.

Causes of stomach ulcers

The 2 main causes of stomach ulcers are:

  • taking anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen - in high doses or for a long time
  • a common bacterial infection - it's not clear why the bacteria only affects certain people

There’s not much evidence that spicy food, alcohol or stress can cause stomach ulcers on their own. They might make your symptoms worse if you already have a stomach ulcer.

The way a stomach ulcer is diagnosed and treated depends on the cause.

How a stomach ulcer is diagnosed

At the GP surgery

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and any medication you’re taking.

They may also recommend tests for a bacterial infection, such as:

  • a stool (poo) sample
  • a blood test
  • a breath test - after you swallow a drink containing a special chemical

In hospital

Sometimes a GP will refer you to hospital for a gastroscopy.

This is where a long, thin tube with a camera on the end is passed through your mouth into your stomach. The pictures will help the doctor see whether you have a stomach ulcer.

Your throat will be numbed with local anaesthetic and you shouldn’t have to stay in hospital. The procedure takes about 15 minutes.

A second gastroscopy may be needed a few weeks after you finish treatment. This is to make sure your ulcer has healed.

Read more about having a gastroscopy.

Treatment from a GP

Stomach ulcers caused by anti-inflammatory painkillers

Your GP may:

  • suggest a different painkiller - such as paracetamol
  • give you antacids to quickly help with the symptoms
  • prescribe stronger medication to reduce stomach acid

You usually need to take stronger medication for stomach ulcers for 4 to 8 weeks.

Stomach ulcers caused by a bacterial infection

Your GP can prescribe a course of antibiotics.

You’ll usually need to take these twice a day for a week. It’s important to finish the course, even if you start to feel better.

You’ll need to go back to your GP surgery about a month later so they can test for the bacteria. You may be given another course of antibiotics if you still have an infection.

Preventing stomach ulcers

To help prevent stomach ulcers or stop them coming back:

Do

  • regularly wash your hands with soap and water - to reduce the chance of bacterial infections
  • only take ibuprofen, aspirin and other NSAIDs when you need them
  • follow the recommended dosage on medicine packets

Don't

  • drink alcohol while taking ibuprofen, aspirin or other NSAIDs - this increases the risk of bleeding
  • smoke - this can increase your risk of stomach ulcers and make treatment less effective

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.

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