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Helicobacter Pylori Infection – Test, Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Updated on February 12, 2014

What is Helicobacter pylori?

Helicobacter pylori is a bacterium that is frequently found in the human stomach. It is estimated that about fifty percent of the people on Earth are infected with H. pylori, but not all exhibit the signs and symptoms of infection. This bacterium is responsible for numerous cases of diseases involving the digestive system. The problems it cause range from stomach and duodenal ulcers, to non-ulcer dyspepsia and even cancer.

About Helicobacter pylori

Helicobacter pylori is a Gram negative, spiral-shaped bacterium. It resides in the stomach of many people; from 30 percent of the population in some countries to as many as 50 percent in others. Thus, H. pylori infection is considered to be one of the most common infections suffered by humans. An individual who has this bacterium in his or her stomach will have chronic and active inflammation. However, only a portion experience problems or show symptoms of infection. Only about ten percent develop peptic ulcer, stomach cancer or MALT (mucosa-associated-lymph-tissue) lymphoma. Since it can cause cancer, H. pylori is classified as a Class 1 carcinogen.

About Helicobacter pylori infection

Around 1979 to 1982, the relation between H. pylori and peptic ulcer was discovered. The bacterium resides in the mucosal membrane that lines the stomach and duodenum, which in some cases lead to the development of ulcers in the stomach and duodenum. In addition, cancer of the stomach and lymphoma can likewise arise. It remains unclear why some people develop these problems while others do not. Indeed, many of the individuals infected are asymptomatic and do not even know that this type of bacteria is thriving inside them.

  • Ulcers of the Stomach and Duodenum

An ulcer of the duodenum and stomach is defined as a lesion on the membrane that lines the wall of the stomach and duodenum. This wound, which could appear like a tiny, reddish depression on the gastric or duodenal wall that exposes the tissues underneath, is caused by the stomach acids. How this comes about is not certain. Normally, there is a balance between the mucus that protects the lining and the gastric acid produced for digestion. It is theorized that the presence of H. pylori causes swelling, named gastritis and duodenitis, which affects this balance, either by decreasing the capability of the mucus barrier or boosting the amount of acid. Either way, the acids will then be able to injure the stomach and duodenal walls.

  • Non-ulcer dyspepsia

This is a type of dyspepsia that is not due to inflammation or ulcer. Also referred to as functional dyspepsia, this condition occurs repeatedly. Treating the condition by eliminating H. pylori infection can sometimes lead to improvement. But in many cases, the episodes of indigestion still keep recurring.

  • Stomach cancer

When H. pylori infection has gone on for quite some time, it is believed that the chance of developing gastric cancer is higher. Even so, cancers that arise due to this bacterial infection are rare.

  • MALT lymphoma

Mucosa-associated-lymph-tissue lymphoma is not the typical stomach cancer. Though very rare, it is theorized that H. pylori infection factors in the cancer’s development.

Causes of Helicobacter pylori infection

In most developing countries, H. pylori infection affects children younger than ten years old. In contrast, developed countries only have a few cases of this bacterial infection in childhood. Instances of infection become more frequent later on in life. It is not absolute how Helicobacter pylori infection is contracted. Fecal to oral route is believed to be the primary method of transmitting the bacterium from one person to another. This is possible by ingesting water, food and drinks polluted with fecal matter which contains the H. pylori bacterium.

Some of the factors that can contribute to the infection are:

  • Poor sanitary practices
  • Improper personal hygiene
  • Congested living situations

Symptoms of Helicobacter pylori infection

Majority of those who had been infected with H. pylori do not experience symptoms. Even when they already have chronic duodenitis or gastritis they remain asymptomatic. But not all are fortunate as a small percentage develop varying degrees of gastric problems.

Most H. pylori infection cases show the symptoms of gastritis or ulcer. Ulcers of the duodenum and stomach may manifest the following signs and symptoms:

  • Bloating or indigestion
  • Burping or belching
  • Dark, tarry stools
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of fullness even when only a small quantity is consumed
  • Low blood count
  • Nausea
  • Poor appetite
  • Upper abdominal discomfort or burning pain
  • Vomiting (may or may not be bloody)


Diagnosis and Tests for Helicobacter pylori infection

To confirm the presence of H. pylori infection, various tests may be conducted. These tests could either be non-invasive or invasive.

Non-invasive tests

  • Urea Breath Test – This test quickly detects whether H. pylori infection exists or not. Bacteria are known to transform urea into carbon dioxide. A drink that contains a specific kind of urea is ingested. If H. pylori is present, the exhaled breath should contain the resulting carbon dioxide. This test is also used to check on the success of any treatment applied.

  • Blood test – The blood will contain antibodies that fight H. pylori, confirming the infection. Still, even if infection is no longer present, the test could give a positive result since the antibodies are still produced by the body up to a year of clearing the infection. Other tests must be done to confirm the condition.

  • Stool H. pylori antigen test – Fecal sample is examined for the presence of the bacterium.

Invasive Tests

  • Gastroscopy – Also known as endoscopy, this procedure examines the stomach wall for any abnormality or problem.

  • Biopsy – Biopsy of a tissue sample of the stomach wall taken during gastroscopy can confirm the presence of H. pylori.


Treatment of Helicobacter pylori infection

Treating Helicobacter pylori infection involves taking antibiotics to eliminate the offending bacteria, as well as medications to lower the acid level in the stomach. Religiously following the prescribed treatment schedule is essential to fully get rid of the infection. About ninety percent of those who take on the full course of treatment are cured. For those whose conditions do not improve, a second course employing a different set of drugs will be prescribed.

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