Stomach ulcers, also known as gastric ulcers, are open sores that develop on the lining of the stomach.
Ulcers can also occur in part of the intestine just beyond the stomach - these are known as duodenal ulcers.
Both stomach and duodenal ulcers are sometimes referred to as peptic ulcers. Here the term “stomach ulcer” will be used, although the following information applies equally to duodenal ulcers.
The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is a burning or gnawing pain in the centre of the abdomen.
When to seek medical advice
You should always visit your GP if you suspect you have a stomach ulcer. Seek urgent medical advice if you experience any of the following symptoms:
vomiting blood – the blood can appear bright red or have a dark brown, grainy appearance similar to coffee grounds
passing black tar-like stools
a sudden, sharp pain in your stomach that gets steadily worse and does not improve
These could be a sign of a complication, such as internal bleeding.
What causes stomach ulcers?
There are two main causes of stomach ulcers:
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria, which can irritate the stomach or upper intestine lining, causing an ulcer to form
non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin, which can have a similar effect
Who is affected?
Stomach ulcers are common. In England, it is estimated about 1 in 10 people will have a stomach ulcer at some point in their life.
Stomach ulcers can affect people of any age, including children, but mostly people aged 60 or over.
Treating stomach ulcers
Medication can be used to treat stomach ulcers. A type of medication known as a proton pump inhibitor can usually reduce the amount of acid in your digestive system, allowing the ulcer to heal.
If an H. pylori infection is responsible for the ulcers, a combination of antibiotics can be used to kill the bacteria which should prevent the ulcer coming back.
If the ulcers are related to the use of NSAIDs, they are usually stopped and proton pump inhibitors used. In the case of aspirin-induced ulcers the aspirin sometimes needs to be continued, depending on why it is being given.
Your doctor will advise you on your particular case.
If the underlying causes of a stomach ulcer are addressed, the ulcer usually goes away after treatment. It's important to address the underlying cause as new ulcers can sometimes form.
Complications of stomach ulcers
Complications of a stomach ulcer are uncommon, affecting around 1 in 50 people.
However, they can be serious and include:
bleeding at the site of the ulcer
the stomach lining at the site of the ulcer splitting open – known as perforation
the ulcer blocking the movement of food through the digestive system – known as gastric obstruction
Some complications are regarded as medical emergencies, though are rarely life-threatening. Older people aged over 70 are most at risk of experiencing a fatal complication of a stomach ulcer.