Stomach ulcers, also known as gastric ulcers, are open sores that develop on the lining of the stomach.
Ulcers can also occur in part of the intestine just beyond the stomach – these are known as duodenal ulcers.
Both stomach and duodenal ulcers are sometimes referred to as peptic ulcers. Here the term “stomach ulcer” will be used, although the information applies equally to duodenal ulcers.
What causes stomach ulcers?
Stomach ulcers occur when the layer that protects the stomach lining from stomach acid breaks down, which allows the stomach lining to become damaged.
This is usually a result of :
an infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria
taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin – particularly if they're taken for a long time or at high doses
It used to be thought that stress or certain foods might cause stomach ulcers, but there’s little evidence to suggest this is the case.
Who is affected?
It’s not known how many people have stomach ulcers, although they’re thought to be quite common. Some studies have found that around 1 in 10 people may get a stomach ulcer at some point in their life.
Stomach ulcers can affect people of any age, including children, but mostly occur in people aged 60 or over. Men are more commonly affected than women.
The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is a burning or gnawing pain in the centre of the abdomen (tummy).
However, stomach ulcers aren’t always painful and some people may experience other symptoms, such as indigestion, heartburn and feeling sick.
When to seek medical advice
You should visit your GP if you think you may have a stomach ulcer.
Seek urgent medical advice if you experience any of the following symptoms:
vomiting blood – the blood can appear bright red or have a dark brown, grainy appearance, similar to coffee grounds
passing dark, sticky, tar-like stools
a sudden, sharp pain in your tummy that gets steadily worse
With treatment, most stomach ulcers will heal within a month or two. The treatment recommended for you will depend on what caused the ulcer.
Most people will be prescribed a medication called a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) to reduce the amount of acid their stomach produces, and allow the ulcer to heal naturally.
If an H. pylori infection is responsible for the ulcers, antibiotics will also be used to kill the bacteria, which should prevent the ulcer coming back.
If the ulcers are caused by the use of NSAIDs, PPIs are usually prescribed and your doctor will discuss whether you should keep using NSAIDs. Alternative medication to NSAIDs, such as paracetamol, may be recommended.
Stomach ulcers can come back after treatment, although this is less likely to happen if the underlying cause is addressed.
Complications of stomach ulcers are relatively uncommon, but they can be very serious and potentially life-threatening.
The main complications include:
bleeding at the site of the ulcer
the stomach lining at the site of the ulcer splitting open – known as perforation
the ulcer blocking the movement of food through the digestive system – known as gastric obstruction
Thorough check-ups and preventive care can help alleviate serious health problems