Q: What causes ulcers? -- Y.S., Augusta
A: These small sores in the stomach lining create a gnawing pain that can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. For most ulcer sufferers, the pain is worse when the stomach is empty or at night.
Left untreated, ulcers can cause serious problems. According to the Johns Hopkins publication Health After 50, internal bleeding, weight loss and tears in the stomach or small intestine can result if an ulcer is left untreated.
According to researchers for the Mayo Clinic, as many as 10 percent of Americans develop ulcers.
Recent studies have shown that ulcers are usually caused by bacteria known as H. pylori. This nasty bug accounts for four-fifths of all ulcers. Mayo Clinic scientists believe that people who were children during the 1920s to the 1940s may have been exposed to the bacteria without realizing it. These scientists believe that the germ is just now making itself known through ulcers.
It is believed that you are at a higher risk for H. pylori infection if you were born before 1950, were born in a developing country, have a low socioeconomic standard of living or live in a large family in crowded conditions. Genetic and environmental factors seem to have something to do with ulcers as well.
It has been shown that blacks and Hispanics are twice as likely as whites to develop ulcers.
The National Institute of Health encourages physicians to prescribe antibiotics for their patients suffering from ulcers caused by this bacterium.
There are some medications and foods that can irritate ulcers. For instance, people with ulcers should avoid aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen sodium. Foods with caffeine should be avoided to avoid irritation. People with ulcers also should limit alcohol intake.
Doctors can determine whether you have an ulcer by using a method known as an upper gastrointestinal series. First, you drink a chalky liquid that pools in the ulcer and shows up on the X-ray.
Your doctor also may prescribe an endoscopy to determine the position of the ulcer. A thin, lighted tube is attached to a tiny camera, which is then guided down your throat into your stomach.
If you are a little queasy about these types of procedures, there has been research on alternative therapies for the treatment of ulcers. Ask your doctor about some of these treatments.
If you have a question or would like more information, please write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.