The discovery, some years ago, of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) has resulted in dramatic changes to the way in which stomach ulcers are treated.
H. pylori is a spiral shaped germ that lives in the stomachs of many people. Sometimes it causes no trouble, but it is almost always present in those with peptic, or duodenal, ulcers. It is also present in the stomach lining of many patients who have stomach cancer. There is little doubt that H. pylori is to blame for many of these problems.
Fortunately, it is usually possible to eradicate this bacterium. Just as many other bacteria can be eliminated from the body by antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline so, too, can we get rid of H. pylori. A one- or 2-week course of a combination of 3 medicines is usually required, which has a very high success rate. This has made life much easier for many people with ulcers who previously had to undergo major surgery or take medicines on a life-long basis.
H. pylori can be diagnosed from biopsies (samples) of the stomach wall taken during an investigation known as endoscopy. In this investigation a snake-like telescopic instrument, the gastroscope, is passed into the stomach to allow the doctor to look for suspected ulcers or cancer.
However, this test can be a little uncomfortable for some patients, and the presence of H. pylori can be diagnosed in a simpler way, through breath-testing. The person undergoing the breath test just has to swallow a capsule, or drink a liquid, containing a tiny amount of a radioactive substance and, about 10 minutes later, blow into a balloon. The balloon is then sealed and its contents later tested in the laboratory. If H. pylori was present in the stomach, certain changes will have happened to the contents of the capsule which can be identified from the breath sample. The amount of radioactivity in the capsule used for this test is extremely low, being about the same as the amount each one of us is exposed to naturally in 12 hours of everyday life.
Several other tests are available to diagnose the presence of H. pylori. Your doctor will decide which test is most appropriate for you.
Last Reviewed: 16 October 2009