Health A-Z

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What Is It?

A peptic ulcer is a sore or hole that forms in the lining of the stomach or intestine.

The word "peptic" refers to the digestive tract. An ulcer in the lining of the stomach is a gastric ulcer. An ulcer in the first part of the small intestine is a duodenal ulcer.

The lining of the stomach is a layer of special cells and mucous. Mucous prevents the stomach and duodenum from being damaged by acid and digestive enzymes.

If there is a break in the lining (such as an ulcer), the tissue under the lining can be damaged by the enzymes and corrosive acid. If the ulcer is small, there may be few symptoms. The wound can heal on its own.

If the ulcer is deep, it can cause serious pain or bleeding. Rarely, acids in the digestive juices may eat completely through the stomach or duodenum wall.

Peptic ulcers are very common. They become more common as people age.

The bacterium Helicobacter pylori is believed to cause most peptic ulcers. This bacteria causes inflammation in the stomach lining. This probably makes the lining vulnerable. But only a minority of people infected with H. pylori develop ulcers.

Another common cause of ulcers is the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Examples of NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn).

NSAIDs block the formation of some prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemicals that normally help protect against ulcers. With less prostaglandins, ulcers are more likely to form.

Several factors can increase your risk of developing a peptic ulcer. Risk factors include:

  • Family history

  • Smoking (particularly if you are infected with H. pylori)

  • Excessive alcohol use

However, contrary to popular belief, stress and spicy foods do not seem to increase the risk of ulcers.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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