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Non-invasive Breath Tests Can Detect Ulcer-Causing Bacteria

Updated on July 2, 2017

Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria found to cause ulcers and gastritis, can be effectively diagnosed with a non-invasive breath test, saving the patient the inconvenience and discomfort of endoscopy. Several methods of diagnosis are available, and your doctor must determine which is best for you. If the breath test option is offered, here's why you might want to go for it.

For generations stress and a spicy diet were blamed for ulcers. In the 1980's Australian doctors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proved through their research that infection from a common bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, was the culprit. Their opinion was endorsed by the National Institutes of Health in 1994 and in 2005 the pair received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the findings.

Doctors may use stool sample analysis to look for the H. pylori antigen, and blood tests can determine the presence of H. pylori antibodies. However, the presence of antibodies doesn't mean that a patient has a current infection, only that he has been exposed and developed antibodies, usually within the last three years. From 25% to 50% of the population carries H. pylori in their GI tract, many times without any symptoms. A negative test, on the other hand is useful in ruling out infections.

Endoscopy is another common diagnostic tool used to find H. pylori infection. For one month before the test, the patient must abstain from all antibiotics and Pepto-Bismol. For one week, Nexium and other Proton Pump Inhibitors are not allowed and within 24 hours of testing, no Tagamet, Zantac or drugs of that type can be used. The patient must fast. An intravenous sedative is used and a flexible tube is inserted into the G.I. tract, down to the duodenum. Samples are obtained for biopsy. Compared to some other medical tests, this is relatively painless and safe, but many patients feel understandable anxiety and apprehension over an endoscopy.

Far less stress producing and also very effective, two types are breath tests can diagnose H. pylori infections. They are the Carbon-14-Urea (C14-Urea) or the Carbon-13-Urea (C13-Urea) Breath tests, and for the patient, these mean less fear and discomfort. They differ in the technology used to read the results of the samples taken, but from the patient's prospective, they are quite similar.

In the C-14-Urea test, fasting is required from midnight before the test. The patient swallows a capsule with a minute amount of radioactive material and ten minutes later is asked to blow into a little balloon or a small bottle of liquid.

With the C-13-Urea method, fasting is also required from the prior midnight. A breath sample is taken first to provide a baseline, then the patient must eat a little pudding type food and drink a liquid containing the radioactive material. Three breath samples are taken over the course of an hour or so, and sent off to be analyzed. An article in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology indicates that this is "an accurate, noninvasive test, even when the breath sample interval is reduced to 10 min."

With either of these breath tests, it is imperative that the patient abstain from all the over-the-counter and prescription drugs mentioned above for the correct time limits. If any of the test show an active H. pylori infection, antibiotics are usually prescribed. Of course, your own doctor must be the definitive source for information and advice.

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