What is H. pylori?
Pylori is short for Helicobacter pylori it is an infection that occurs when the bacteria H. pylori is present in the stomach. Typically, the germs enter the body during childhood and live in the digestive tract. Its present in more than half of the world’s population. It is a common infection with majority of people not aware they have the H. pylori infection as they never experience symptoms from it. If the patient shows symptoms of the infection such as peptic ulcers, then the physician will conduct tests and treatment using antibiotics. In more severe cases infection can lead to development of stomach cancer.
As there is more awareness for sanitation and hygiene along with access to clean water, fewer people are getting the infection. With good health habits, many people can protect themselves and their families from H. pylori.
What causes H. pylori?
For many years’ physicians have thought people suffered from ulcers in their stomachs due to stress, smoking or other lifestyle choices. H. pylori was discovered in 1982, scientists found this germ was in fact the cause of most stomach ulcers. It is thought the bacteria is passed on from contaminated food, water or utensils however the exact way H. pylori is contracted is still unknown. You can also become infected through direct contact with saliva or other bodily fluids of an infected person.
Who are most at risk?
Children are prone to develop a H. pylori infection; the risk is often higher due to the lack of proper hygiene practiced by children. The risk of infection is also dependent on the living conditions, the risk is higher if you:
- Co-live with people who are infected with H. pylori
- Do not practice proper hygiene
- Live in overcrowded accommodation
What are the symptoms of H. pylori?
Most people with H. pylori do not show any symptoms of H. pylori however if people become ill due to the infection, they may show the following symptoms:
- Aching stomach
- Burning pain in abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Unplanned weight loss
- Burning sensation in the abdomen
The pain experienced may get worse at night or when the stomach is empty. Once H. pylori enter the body it attacks the stomach lining which provides protection from acid the body uses to digest food. Once the bacteria have done substantial damage to the stomach lining the acid can pass through the lining which results in ulcers. These may bleed and cause further infection and diseases.
What do I need to know about H. pylori and cancer risk?
Pylori is successfully treated with a combination of antibiotics and acid reducing medication, however if there is a strong family history of stomach cancer as well as other cancer risk factors the physician may test for H. pylori even though you may not experience any symptoms of the infection. There has been recent evidence that has been found linking the changes caused by H. pylori infection to stomach cancer. Regular checkups with the physician are highly recommended in order to monitor and report any changes in your body. It is important to seek immediate medical help if you experience the following symptoms:
- Acute or continuous abdominal pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Bloody stools
- Bloody or black vomit
- Feeling dizzy or faint
In addition to screening, your doctor may suggest some lifestyle changes, such as including more fruits, vegetables, and fiber in your diet. Regular checkups with the doctor and following recommendations can reduce your risk of cancer.
How is H. pylori it treated?
Fortunately, H. pylori is curable with several different antibiotics. Fast and efficient treatment will help prevent further damage to the stomach and the possibility of ulcers, gastritis, and stomach cancer. If an ulcer is discovered, patients can be treated with several medications, which include some or all of the following:
- Antibiotics to eradicate H. pylori
- Medicines that decrease stomach acid called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
- Medicines that line the ulcer and help it heal
In some cases, ulcers can return, and can come back after treatment. In order to avoid re-occurrence its recommended to undertake the following steps:
- Stop NSAIDs or consume a smaller dose
- Only take NSAIDs with specific medicines that protect the stomach lining
- Avoid alcohol and do not smoke
How is it diagnosed?
If you are showing symptoms of H. pylori or have a strong family history of stomach cancer the physician can diagnose the infection with various test methods. Medicines such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also cause damage to the stomach lining therefore its important to identify what is causing the symptoms in order to choose the correct treatment plan. H. pylori can be identified with blood, breath, or stool tests.
- Blood test: A little blood is drawn from the arm; the sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
- Stool test: A container is given in which a stool sample is provided by the patient, this sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
- Breath test: The patient is requested to drink a pre-prepared substance containing urea, if H. pylori is present the enzyme in the fluid breaks down H. pylori releasing carbon dioxide, which is then detected by the special breathalyzer.
To investigate the ulcers more closely the physician may also use the following methods:
- Endoscopy: A small tube with a camera at the end is inserted through the mouth and down the throat into the upper small intestine.
- Upper GI test: The patient is requested to drink a fluid called barium; an X-ray is then carried out. The fluid coats the throat and stomach which makes them stand out in the X-ray allowing a thorough examination.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: Is an advanced X-ray that makes detailed pictures of the inside of the body.
- Biopsy: A small piece if tissue is taken from the stomach lining in order to look for signs of cancer. This is often conducted during an endoscopy.
If you have any concerns about the H. pylori infection or you think you may have a high risk of stomach cancer its imperative to talk to your physician. Our team of specialist care and medical professionals can help you decide together whether if you will benefit from H. pylori screening.