Helicobacter Pylori (Stomach Infection)

Condition Summary

This unusual name identifies bacteria that can cause infection in the stomach. Bacteria are tiny microbes, larger than viruses, but still only seen with the aid of a microscope. To understand how and where the infection occurs, it is useful to know the anatomy of the upper digestive track. The food pipe is called the esophagus, and it enters into the larger, upper part of the stomach where food is collected. The narrower, lower part of the stomach is called the antrum. The antrum contracts frequently and vigorously, and in so doing, grinds up the food and squirts it into the small intestine. The stomach, including the antrum, is covered by a thick layer of mucous which acts to protect it from the strong acid that the stomach secretes.

What Is It?
Helicobacter Pylori is a fragile bacteria that has found an ideal home in the protective mucous layer of the stomach antrum. The bacteria have several long threads protruding from them that attach themselves to the side of the underlying stomach cells. The germ is protected in this mucous environment. It does not infect the underlying stomach cells as certain other bacteria might. The infection, however, does generate a reaction in the body. Infection fighting white blood cells move into the area and the body even develops protein antibodies to the bacteria, so the infection is indeed very real. It is generally accepted by medical authorities that this infection occurs when an individual swallows the bacteria in food, fluid, or perhaps, from contaminated utensils. It is known that older people have a higher incidence of the infection, as do people in Third World countries where contaminated foods are more likely to occur. The infection, however, remains localized and probably persists indefinitely unless specific treatment is given.

Stomach Problems: What Causes Them?

There are several ways to make the diagnosis. During endoscopy, the physician may take small snippets of tissue that can be tested either immediately or at a later date. There is also a breath test available to detect the presence of infection. In this test, a substance called urea is given by mouth. A strong enzyme in the bacteria breaks down the urea into an ammonia gas which is then exhaled through the lungs and can be measured. Ad finally, there is a blood test that can measure the protein antibodies in the blood against the bacteria.

Since the infection is so common and often does not cause symptoms, it is generally recommended that no treatment be given under these circumstances. There are times, however, when the ulcers or symptoms do not clear up under standard treatment with medicines that reduce stomach acid. Then the physician may consider treatment with antibiotics. Interestingly, one of these antibiotics is a bismuth compound which is available over the counter as Pepto-Bismol. The bismuth part of the medicine actually kills the bacteria. It must be remembered that the microbe is buried deep in the stomach mucous so it is difficult to get rid of this infection. Therefore, three antibiotics are generally used together to prevent the germ from developing resistance to any one antibiotic. The drugs must be used for up to 30 days to get the best results.

Helicobacter Pylori is a very common infection of the stomach. In most cases it causes no problems or symptoms. It is becoming increasingly clear that the infection is related to the development of stomach and duodenal ulcers. However stomach acid is still a major factor in the development of most ulcers. In most cases, antibiotic treatment is not necessary. In some instances, antibiotic therapy may be required. By itself, the infection is usually not serious. The physician is able to evaluate this infection in light of other digestive problems and arrive at the appropriate treatment program.