Inside the Bacteria: Helicobacter Pylori

Helicobacter Pylori (H. Pylori) is a bacteria found in the stomach. It was initially identified in 1982 when scientists discovered that this particular bacteria was present in patients suffering from chronic gastritis and gastric ulcers. Infection with H. Pylori can contribute to the development of gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), gastric or duodenal ulcers, and dyspepsia (upset stomach and or indigestion). Prior to the discovery of H. Pylori, it was presumed that these conditions were more likely due to medications such as anti-inflammatories and steroids, alcohol and even stress. Since then, H. Pylori has also been identified as a risk factor for the development of gastric cancer.

H. Pylori is likely one of the most common bacterial infections worldwide. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 50% of the world’s population may have H. Pylori. Individuals who have H. Pylori likely acquire the infection when the bacteria is swallowed. It may be present in food, fluids or even utensils and is usually passed on from one person to another. And while often acquired as a youth, H. Pylori infection rates do increase with aging. Infection with H. Pylori is more frequently found in people from developing countries and those living in large cities with diverse populations. Additionally, infection rates tend to be higher in areas of poor sanitation and crowded living spaces. It is important to keep in mind that while H. Pylori can cause several conditions, many if not most (approximately 80%) of those infected will remain asymptomatic.

How is H. Pylori infection diagnosed?

Presently, there are several ways to detect the presence of H. Pylori in an individual. There are specific stool tests, serology (blood tests), and a breathing test, all of which can be done in a doctor’s office. Perhaps the most accurate and definitive way to diagnose this bacteria is during endoscopy. This is a procedure performed by a gastroenterologist during which a flexible camera is introduced into the stomach through the mouth and tissue samples of the stomach are removed for analysis. This painless procedure can be done as an outpatient very safely and rapidly.

H. Pylori has been implicated in chronic gastritis and dyspepsia. Patients suffering from these conditions may have nausea, bloating and abdominal discomfort characterized by burning and upper abdominal pain. H. Pylori is also often the cause of both gastric and duodenal ulcers. When H. Pylori is found in the setting of ulcers, it should be treated. This will help both heal the ulcers and prevent their recurrence. Stomach cancer and certain types of gastric lymphomas may also be related to infection with H. Pylori. It is important to understand that while H. Pylori infection is very common, very few of those who have it will ever develop these types of cancers.

Since infection with H. Pylori is so common, and so few people are affected or have symptoms, it is not recommended to test for this bacteria unless your doctor determines that it may be necessary. There are several treatment regimens that exist, but all require multiple medications. Often, two antibiotics are used along with antacid medications. The specific medications and duration of treatment should be determined on an individual basis by your physician. Testing to ensure eradication of H. Pylori is not always necessary but may be important and should be discussed with your doctor.

While the incidence of H. Pylori in Western countries is on decline, detecting and treating H. Pylori may be an important part of your well-being and overall health. Your physician can help assist you in determining if testing for H. Pylori is important to your healthcare.