The Truth about Women and Ulcers

We’ve all heard the myths about these mysterious ailments called ulcers:

Control your stress, or you’ll get an ulcer.
Watch out for spicy foods, unless you want an ulcer.
Got an ulcer? Drink milk.

None of these are remotely true, but have, nonetheless, been passed down through generations to those suffering from a variety of digestive disorders. So what is an ulcer? The facts about this often painful, usually treatable, irritation might actually surprise you.

Ulcers Defined

According to the book, “Mayo Clinic on Digestive Health,” ulcer is the medical term for an open sore. While most of us think of those sores occurring within the digestive tract, ulcers can occur in other areas as well, including the lower back, buttocks and ankles. The peptic ulcer is the type most familiar. These ulcers develop in the lining of the small intestine or stomach, and affect about 10 percent of the people living in this country.

Only 10 percent? But it seems like everyone knows someone with an ulcer! Possibly, but probably not. The truth is, ulcers are a relatively rare condition in the United States, and are becoming rarer all the time.

In fact, Dr. Cynthia M. Yoshida, in her book, “No More Digestive Problems,” says, “Whenever I see an ulcer during an endoscopy, I call over my GI fellows to show them what it looks like. They may not see that many ulcers during their training, so I point them out when I find them.” Some folks who think they have an ulcer may actually be suffering from another chronic condition, such as GERD or nunulcer dyspepsia. Only your doctor can tell you the real reason behind your symptoms.

Ulcers: The Real Culprit

If stress and spicy foods don’t cause these nasty critters to develop, then what does? Interestingly, one of the most common culprits is a bacterium known as H. pylori. These bacteria may be transmitted through contact with an infected person, poor sanitation or contaminated water. Scientists are finding the incidences of H. pylori are lower today than they were decades ago, no doubt due to our improvements in these areas. This reduced incidence of H. pylori is probably a factor in the lower number of ulcer cases as well.

That’s the good news. The bad news is there is another potential cause on the rise, and it affects women more than men.

Taking large amounts of pain medications, particularly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can increase your risk of developing an ulcer. According to the Mayo Clinic, between 15 and 30 percent of the people who take these medications regularly will develop ulcers. The reason women are more vulnerable is because they take more of these medications overall for ailments like headaches and menstrual cramps. Your best bet in reducing your risk is to switch to acetaminophen whenever possible, since this medicine does not play into the development of ulcers.

Other habits able to increase your risk include smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Nicotine can increase the amount of acid in your stomach, creating a ripe field for an ulcer to develop. Alcohol can damage the lining of your digestive tract, which can lead to inflammation and bleeding. The jury is still out on whether these bad habits alone can cause an ulcer to develop, but they can contribute to one when other factors, like H. pylori bacteria, are present.

When to Call the Doctor

If you experience any of the symptoms of an ulcer, it is best to see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and an effective treatment plan. The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms to watch out for:

  • Gnawing pain in the stomach area
  • Blood in your stools or vomit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pain in the middle of your back

Your doctor can perform different tests to determine the cause of your symptoms. These tests might include an upper GI X-ray or an endoscopy. The endoscopy consists of threading a long, narrow tube down your throat and into your stomach. At the end of the tube is a tiny camera to help your doctor view your entire digestive tract. According to Dr. Yoshida, the endoscopy is the “gold standard for diagnosing ulcers.” If anything is found during the test, your doctor can take a sample of the suspicious lining to test it further.

If an ulcer is diagnosed, treatment will probably include a combination of antibiotics to treat the H. pylori and an acid blocker to heal the ulcer. If your ulcer is caused by NSAID instead of the bacteria, you will probably be given the acid blocker and advised to switch your pain medication to something safer for you. The large majority of peptic ulcers will heal within six to eight weeks with this type of treatment. A small number of cases will need additional medication or treatment to heal completely.

Ulcers can be painful and unpleasant, but the good news is they can be treated. If you think you might be suffering from an ulcer, make an appointment with your doctor today. You and your digestive system will be glad you did.


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