Helicobacter pylori, or h. pylori, is a bacterium that has brought about a revolution in the way we treat peptic ulcer disease.
Peptic ulcers are sores that develop in the lining of the stomach or duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine. In the past decade or so, we’ve learned that perhaps as many as 90 percent of peptic ulcers are caused by infection with h. pylori. We don’t know exactly how people get infected, but it’s probably spread through food, water and saliva.
Only a small percentage of people with h. pylori infections get peptic ulcers. A few people may develop gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, as a result of infection. H. pylori also appears to raise the risk of stomach cancer. But for the most part, infection doesn’t seem to cause any problems. So it can be dangerous, but treatment isn’t usually recommended for people without symptoms.
Treatment is advised, though, for peptic ulcers and it can cure the disease. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as eliminating some other kinds of bacterial infections. Because the discovery of h. pylori’s role in ulcers is so recent, doctors are still searching for the optimal treatment.
Typically, treatment involves a combination of medications. The most popular method is known as triple therapy: two different antibiotics, plus a third medicine that either reduces acid production in the stomach or protects the stomach lining. While highly effective, triple therapy has some drawbacks. It lasts two weeks and the patient may have to take about 20 pills each day. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and others.
Whatever the form of therapy, it will be followed several months later by a test to make sure that the h. pylori infection has not come back.