Half of all humans have bacteria called Helicobacter pylori in their stomachs, and they are the main cause of ulcers! We explain why.
The prospect of having your body invaded by bacteria is never a pleasant one, although we must remember that many bacteria inhabit our digestive tract for its own good. The eradication of Helicobacter pylori with antibiotics could, however, lead to the healing of the stomach ulcer that has been bothering you for a long time and that always comes back with its endless pain, burning, vomiting, etc.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The history of Helicobacter pylori is fascinating. In 1983, two Australian researchers, Dr Warren and Dr Marshall, identified an unknown bacterium in biopsies of the gastric mucosa of patients with duodenal or stomach ulcers. Defying the scientific knowledge of the time, they proposed that this bacterium could be the major cause of ulcers, and that its eradication would lead to a cure for this recurrent disease that affects nearly one in ten people worldwide.
Numerous studies have subsequently proven Warren and Marshall’s hypothesis to be true, and the importance of this discovery, which revolutionised the treatment of this disease, earned its authors the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005.
HELICOBACTER PYLORI: A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE
Helicobacter pylori is one of the few bacteria that can live in the acidic environment of the human stomach. It can be transmitted from one human to another by the oral or fecal-oral route, i.e. through saliva, vomit, diarrhoeal stools, etc. The bacterium is most often found in children (who sometimes put fingers that are not always clean in their mouths). Transmission is favoured by poor hygiene conditions and by promiscuity, particularly within the family.
The infection is very rarely acquired in adulthood and the patient is rarely re-infected after the bacteria have already been eradicated from the body.
Helicobacter pylori infection is common. In some countries of the world, up to 80% of people will be carriers, while in Western countries it will be found in 30-50% of people. However, not all of these people develop stomach ulcers. It seems that in many people, Helicobacter pylori can live quietly in the stomach without causing any obvious damage.
So why is this bacterium harmful to some people, but harmless to the majority of people who carry it? This remains an enigma.
TREATMENT WITH ANTIBIOTICS
If you suffer from stomach ulcers – especially those affecting the duodenum and its bulb – and your ulcer reappears a few times a year without you really knowing why, forcing you to consume antacids to relieve yourself, you will probably be very happy to learn from your doctor that you are a Helicobacter pylori carrier.
Treatment with antibiotics will, in 9 out of 10 cases, result in the disappearance of the bacteria from your stomach: you will then be forever cured of the ulcer disease that has plagued you for many years. There are various combinations of antibiotics to treat ulcers. They are also accompanied by antacid medication. The aim of the treatment is to destroy the bacteria and to restore your stomach to optimal healing conditions.
HELICOBACTER PYLORI AND STOMACH ULCERS
However, eradicating Helicobacter pylori is not a miracle treatment for all stomach ailments. In fact, your ulcers may have another cause than Helicobacter pylori.
For example, aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) are increasingly being found to cause stomach ulcers. Eradicating Helicobacter pylori in these conditions will not bring about the desired healing. Also, if you suffer from burning or regurgitation in the esophagus due to gastroesophageal reflux disease, do not expect your condition to improve after eradicating the bacteria. If you also suffer from stomach pain or slow digestion due to functional dyspepsia, you have only a slim chance (1 in 10) of getting relief from the bacteria.
Alcohol and cigarettes can also contribute to stomach pain, alcohol because it irritates the intestinal lining, cigarettes because they promote acid production in the stomach.
FIRST BACTERIUM ASSOCIATED WITH CANCER
Helicobacter pylori does not seem to have serious consequences for everyone. However, as a precautionary measure, medical authorities recommend eradicating the bacteria when tests have revealed its presence.
Helicobacter pylori is the first bacterium to be recognised as a carcinogen, and is thought to be involved in stomach cancer, which is very common in Asia (1 in 1000 inhabitants), but much rarer in the West (less than 1 in 10 000 inhabitants). It is hoped – although not yet clearly demonstrated – that eradicating Helicobacter pylori may help prevent gastric cancer.
DID YOU KNOW?
Stomach ulcers have long been linked to stress, spicy meals and eating in a hurry. Since the discovery of Helicobacter pylori, this has become less clear. This does not mean that you should increase your stressful occasions, sprinkle your plate with chillies and eat continuously on the run. It does mean that you should add a visit to the doctor to your hectic life.