Ulcers: Prevent the Burn

There are three main categories of things that can cause ulcers. They include a bacterial infection, inflammation from commonly used drugs, and frequently consumed foods. An ulcer is an open sore that can occur in the digestive tract when the inner lining is compromised. Ulcers usually occur in the stomach or small intestine. Keeping the lining of the digestive tract healthy and intact is an important part of ulcer prevention and involves a balance between maintaining the protective mucous layer and avoiding increased acid production.

Posted on | Robynne K. Chutkan, MD, FASGE | Comments ()
Ulcers: Prevent the Burn
Ulcers: Prevent the Burn

There are three main categories of things that can cause ulcers. They include a bacterial infection, inflammation from commonly used drugs, and frequently consumed foods. An ulcer is an open sore that can occur in the digestive tract when the inner lining is compromised. Ulcers usually occur in the stomach or small intestine. Keeping the lining of the digestive tract healthy and intact is an important part of ulcer prevention and involves a balance between maintaining the protective mucous layer and avoiding increased acid production.

3 Causes of Ulcers

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacteria that was first described in the 1980s and is transmitted through food and water or person to person. Although roughly half the world's population is infected with H. pylori and infection increases your chances for developing ulcers, only about 20% of those infected have any symptoms. Still, if you are diagnosed with an ulcer, finding out if you have H. pylori and treating it if you do is an important part of making sure your ulcer heals and doesn't come back.


Common pain relievers containing ibuprofen or aspirin are frequent causes of inflammation and ulcers, particularly in older people who may be using them regularly for arthritis. Taking them with meals or switching to acetaminophen when appropriate may be helpful steps to avoid developing an ulcer. If you have been diagnosed with an ulcer, particularly a bleeding ulcer, you need to be careful about taking ibuprofen or aspirin in the future.

Excessive alcohol and caffeine can also lead to ulcers, particularly in smokers. Your doctor may prescribe drugs that suppress acid production to heal the ulcers, but smoking cessation and avoiding or cutting back significantly on caffeine and alcohol are also an important part of treatment. 

Patients frequently ask me about the role of stress in causing ulcers. A serious illness, an accident, major surgery or significant emotional stress may all be contributing factors in the development of ulcers. In fact, ulcers are a common finding in patients admitted to the intensive care unit for other serious medical conditions. 

So, what can you do to prevent an ulcer? Find out your H. pylori status if you have symptoms suggestive of an ulcer, don't smoke, avoid unnecessary use of ibuprofen or aspirin, keep your caffeine and alcohol consumption to a minimum (not more than one caffeinated or alcoholic beverage daily), and try some guided meditation to keep your stress levels low. If you think you have an ulcer, have your symptoms checked out by a gastroenterologist who may recommend an examination of the stomach and small intestine (upper endoscopy) for diagnosis.

Blog written by Robynne K. Chutkan, MD, FASGE
Dr. Robynne Chutkan is a Board Certified Gastroenterologist and an Assistant Professor in the Division of Gastroenterology at...