Could you have ulcers and not know?

Monday November 28 2016

The most common  symptoms of a stomach ulcer is

The most common  symptoms of a stomach ulcer is pain in the upper tummy (abdomen), just below the breastbone(sternum). PHOTO|ANTHONY SIAME 

By Syriacus Buguzi @buguzi

It took some months for a friend of mine to discover he was suffering from stomach ulcers. This happened back in the early days at campus in 2009.

He was a colleague from a neighbouring university—now a lawyer at a respected firm in Dar es Salaam. I won’t name him for good reasons, but the story about his experience with the condition could stretch your understanding a little more on what stomach ulcers is.

At the age of 29, back then, he usually avoided public places. He declined offers for night-outs and by-passed big events at campus. He also dreaded important business meetings—even those that could have taken him miles ahead in his career.

One could have taken him for an antisocial personality but for me, who knew him, that wasn’t really him—he had been quite an outgoing person, but, symptoms of chronic gastric (stomach) ulcers were making his life miserable. So, he preferred a solitary life.

He had both ‘mild’ and ‘terrible’ symptoms—ranging from bloating and stomach pain to flatulence and belching. At first, he just thought they weren’t too serious for him to seek medical advice.

As most young people do nowadays, he looked up on the internet and ‘Googled’ something on stomach fullness. So, he thought he was suffering from aerophagia—a condition caused by swallowing too much air.

He resorted in avoiding what had been his favorite drink—Coca Cola. He also avoided chewing bubble gum. His love for cigarettes ceased, yet, that didn’t seem to help.

For several months, he got used to that life but he was still feeling too uncomfortable throughout his school days. He grappled with horrible abdominal cramps that could sometimes keep him awake at night.

My honest advice to him was to seek advice from a Gastroenterology specialist at Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH). Guess what happened? The doctor recommended test for a bacterium known as H Pylori. Results turned out positive.

H Pylori is one of the most common infections globally. And, “H. pylori infection is present in significant proportion of dyspeptic patients in Tanzania,’’ says a study titled: ‘Upper gastrointestinal endoscopic findings and prevalence of Helicobacter pylori infection among adult patients with dyspepsia in northern Tanzania.’ The study was published two years ago in the African Journals Online (AJOL).

The bacterium can prove difficult to detect, yet, delayed discovery can give rise to a number of problems because the bacterium is also associated with cancer of the stomach.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad ending with my colleague. His problems were detected and thus eradicated. He was put on a course of antibiotics for about 15 days, and, his condition improved remarkably.

But what is bacterium Pylori?

Medical sources show that H Pylori, is a short form for Helicobacter Pylori—a spiral-shaped organism that tends to live in the stomachs of humans and other animals.

My stomach—and yours of course, is lined with a protective coating that keeps it safe from bacterial infections.

H Pylori secretes an enzyme that neutralises stomach acid, enabling the bacteria to dig deep into the walls of our stomach, where it may survive undetected for over decades.

The effects of the H Pylori on the mucous coating lead to more damage caused by stomach acid that also corrodes the sensitive stomach lining—leading to what is known as Stomach Ulcers.

How you can get infected with Pylori?

It is most likely acquired through eating food or water, contaminated with the bacterium—especially if the food is prepared in an unhygienic condition.

For isntance, if those who prepare the food don’t wash their hands. It can also spread from person to person by sharing food utensils. It has been found to be common among people in crowded settings.

How to detect and treat it

Most people are unaware about this condition—and the bacterium itself. When a patient faces a doctor, a test on blood, stool samples is taken or a biopsy can be taken from the lining of the gastrointestinal tract obtained during an endoscopic test.

It can be treated with antibiotics—in what is known as ‘Tripple therapy’. It includes two types of antibiotics and a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), which is used to relieve your stomach of acidity.

Scientists are trying to figure out the exact source of the H Pylori. So, to avoid it, always wash your hands thoroughly, only eat food that has been hygienically prepared, and drink water from a safe and clean source.

Eat food with nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E, along with zinc, that protect the stomach lining by combating obnoxious biochemical products known as free radicals.

In a nutshell, ensure that you are not deficient in any of these. Scientists know it that certain harmless bacterium—known as probiotics, for example: lactobacillus and bi-fidobacterium may also help protect you from H Pylori.

Other rare causes of stomach ulcers

Other causes are rare. For example, some viral infections can cause a stomach ulcers. Crohn’s disease may cause a stomach ulcer in addition to other problems of the gut. Stomach cancer may at first look similar to an ulcer. Stomach cancer is uncommon, but may need to be ‘ruled out’ if you are found to have a stomach ulcer.

Symptoms of a stomach ulcer

Pain in the upper tummy (abdomen) just below the breastbone (sternum) is the common symptom.

It usually comes and goes. It may be eased if you take antiacid tablets. Sometimes food makes the pain worse. The pain may wake you from sleep.

Other symptoms which may occur include bloating, retching, and feeling sick. You may feel particularly ‘full’ after a meal.

Complications develop in some cases, and can be serious. These include: Bleeding ulcer. This can range from a ‘trickle’ to a life-threatening bleed.

Perforation. This is where the ulcer goes right through (perforates) the wall of the stomach. Food and acid in the stomach then leak into the abdominal cavity. This usually causes severe pain and is a medical emergency.

More information on rare causes and sympotoms from