Ulcers are sores that can technically grow on any part of the body — but are most commonly treated when located in the digestive system. These painful lesions can cause a huge host of side effects, including decreased appetite, vomiting, blood in the stool or vomit, and vertigo.
Some ulcers go away on their own, but it’s always best to check with a doctor before diagnosing yourself. It’s best to catch peptic ulcers before they get too serious (and require surgery to treat).
Find out what causes ulcers, how to prevent them, and what to do when you think you’ve got one.
Types of Ulcers
Technically, you can get an ulcer pretty much anywhere from your body (yes, skin ulcers are a thing). From your arms to legs to feet, no body part is immune from ulcers. Yet, the most common types of ulcers plague the digestive system. The three most common types of ulcers are:
- Gastric (stomach lining)
- Esophageal (esophagus)
- Duodenal (small intestine)
Ulcers that develop in the esophagus are called peptic ulcers. They’re most common in men aged 30-to-50. Stomach ulcers are more common in elderly women (over the age of 60).
Causes of Ulcers
Peptic ulcers are most often caused by bacteria, helicobacter pylori. They’re also often the result of using too much aspirin and NSAIDs. Other types of ulcers are commonly caused by lifestyle choices, such as spicy and acidic foods, smoking, and caffeine. The most common causes of ulcers include:
- Alcohol consumption
- Bananas (can create mucus that coats the stomach lining)
- Caffeine in coffee and soda
- Chewing tobacco
- Highly acidic foods
- Spicy foods
- Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
Zollinger-Ellison syndrome is a rare syndrome that causes the stomach to produce stomach acid at an accelerated rate. This can usually be reversed through surgery.
While most of the above causes of ulcers are somewhat easy to avoid for some people, cutting caffeine or nicotine can be incredibly difficult for others. If you need help with smoking cessation or handling stress, we recommend seeking online professional help.
Ulcer symptoms are often confused with symptoms of other conditions. Since ulcers affect the entire digestive system, you may experience pain in your esophagus, stomach, or pelvic area. The most common symptoms associated with ulcers include:
- Appetite changes
- Back pain
- Black stools
- Blood in stools
- Blood in vomit
- Excessive acid reflux
- Feeling full too soon
- Palled skin
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
One somewhat scary fact is that most people who suffer from ulcers don’t experience any symptoms at all. That means that you could have one (or more) ulcers for an undisclosed period of time — and not know it. By the time symptoms arise, your ulcers could get seriously out of control.
Some patients mistake ulcers for heartburn or acid reflux and end up self-medicating with antacids or other medications that aren’t designed to treat heartburns. If you’re planning on taking prescription antacids, it’s best to consult with your doctor to rule out the possibility of an ulcer before filling that prescription.
Many ulcers are the result of lifestyle choices, such as drinking too much caffeine or taking too much aspirin or NSAIDs. Luckily, you can prevent ulcers and even reverse the symptoms of ulcers that have already started developing. Some of the most common ways to prevent ulcers include:
- Abstaining from highly acidic foods
- Chewing mastic gum
- Eating plenty of whole grains, honey, fruits, and veggies
- Eliminating dairy
- Getting enough sleep
- Keeping stress levels down through online therapy or health apps
- Limiting alcohol
- Smoking cessation
- Taking supplements, like probiotics and flavonoids
- Using acetaminophen instead of aspirin or NSAIDs
- Asking your doctor to switch you off harsh medications that are known to cause side effects, such as ulcers
- Washing all produce before you eat it and cooking meat thoroughly to prevent the spread of ulcer-causing bacteria
- Taking a lower dose of aspirin or NSAIDs if weaning off them is not an option
Foods to Eat to Prevent Ulcers
Some doctors may recommend eating certain foods to reduce the risk of getting ulcers. These foods tend to be alkaline and don’t contain animal products. The most common foods doctors recommend to people who suffer from chronic ulcers or at a higher risk of developing ulcers include:
- Avocado oil
- Bell peppers
- Olive oil
The above list of foods contain antioxidants and may help fight the bacteria that causes ulcers. Some people also swear by coconut oil as a natural treatment.
To diagnose an ulcer, most doctors will need to perform an endoscopy (or, check out your esophagus with a tiny camera). Some will recommend other types of tests, such as a blood test or a breath test (to determine if ulcer-causing bacteria is present in your system).
Some doctors may recommend getting a stomach x-ray; in this case, you’ll drink a white substance that coats the stomach, allowing any ulcers to stand out more prominently.
Some ulcers (esophageal and intestinal may go away with dietary and lifestyle changes; yet, Some ulcers (the kind caused by bacteria and NSAIDs) can’t be treated at home and need antibiotics or proton pump inhibitors. Other treatments your doctor may recommend include:
- Proton pump inhibitors
- H2 receptor blockers
- Bismuth supplements
Surgery is generally recommended for problem ulcers that don’t go away with treatment, bleed, and/or disrupt the digestive system. Surgery may include removing the ulcer or patching up the intestines or artery. Some doctors may also recommend a surgery that includes reducing the flow of acid in the stomach (for patients that have overactive stomach acid).
If you think you may be suffering from ulcer symptoms, contact an online doctor for a consultation. Online doctors can diagnose symptoms orally over the phone, video, or message chats. Should you need to see an in-person doctor, your telehealth provider usually can offer a recommendation — and some hybrid doctors even make house calls.