A common bacterial infection, which may lead to inflammation or ulceration in the upper digestive tract
- Often contracted in childhood, but symptoms usually develop in adulthood
- More common in males
- Living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions is a risk factor
- Genetics is not a significant factor
The Helicobacter pylori bacterium was discovered in the early 1980s. Research since then has shown that about half of the world’s population is infected. The infection is usually contracted during childhood and, in most cases, causes no symptoms, despite being associated with inflammation of the stomach lining (see Gastritis). However, in some people, H. pylori infection may lead to a peptic ulcer, in which an area of the lining of the stomach or the duodenum is eroded by the action of the acidic digestive juices.
The H. pylori bacterium can lead to peptic ulcers or gastritis when it damages the mucous layer of the stomach or duodenum. The mucus usually protects the lining of the stomach and the duodenum from acidic digestive juices, and the lining may become inflamed or eroded in areas where the mucous layer is damaged. Long-term infection with H. pylori may also increase the risk of developing stomach cancer.
The exact way in which H. pylori is transmitted is unknown. It is believed that the bacterium may be carried in faeces and saliva and is most readily passed on by close contact with others, especially among people living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. The infection is more common in males.
How is it diagnosed?
If you have discomfort or pain in the upper abdomen, your doctor may suspect that you have gastritis or a peptic ulcer. He or she may arrange for tests to check for H. pylori infection. The most common test is a faecal test for the presence of H. pylori proteins. Alternatively, you may be given a blood test to check for antibodies against H. pylori, or a breath test. The breath test involves first drinking a substance that is normally broken down by H. pylori. If the bacteria are present, the substance is changed into a chemical that can be detected with a breathalyser. You may also have an upper digestive tract endoscopy, in which the stomach or duodenum is examined with a flexible viewing tube. During the endoscopy procedure, a small piece of the lining may be taken for examination under a microscope.
What is the treatment?
Treatment for H. pylori is given only if the infection has led to a disorder such as gastritis or a peptic ulcer. Your doctor will prescribe a combination of antibiotics to treat the H. pylori infection and other drugs to suppress the production of acid by the stomach (see Ulcer-healing drugs).
In about 9 in 10 cases, H. pylori infection can be successfully treated. The infection may recur in a small number of cases.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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