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Ulcer Prevention and Risk Factors

Just because you are in a high-risk group for an ulcer, doesn't mean an ulcer will develop.

Abusing alcohol increases the risk factors in the development of ulcers. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Abusing alcohol increases the risk factors in the development of ulcers.

Ulcer Prevention and Risk Factors

Ulcer prevention and risk factors are concerns for those who have a family history of peptic ulcer disease. Even without a family history, the average person might want to consider becoming familiar with the risk factors for peptic ulcers and preventive methods because peptic ulcers are common.

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 1 in 10 people in America will develop an ulcer at one point in life. While the risk factors remain the same across the board, preventative methods can be taken.

Some preventative methods include using proper hygiene, understanding the role of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in peptic ulcer disease and protecting the digestive lining from aggressors.

Risk Factors

Every disease has a set of factors that increase the possibility of a positive diagnosis. The presence of some or all of these risk factors doesn't mean a person will get the disease. It simply means the person is at a higher risk for developing ulcers. In peptic ulcer disease, the risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Use of prescription and nonprescription NSAIDs on a regular basis
  • Substance abuse including smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Age 50 years or older

For people who take NSAIDs (medications like aspirin or ibuprofen) on a regular basis, the risks increase if they have had prior ulcers or internal bleeding, take steroid medications, use a blood thinner or have side effects that include heartburn or acid reflux. The longer NSAIDs are used, the higher the risk factor.

Safety Precautions and Ulcer Prevention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) cause more than 90 percent of duodenal ulcers (ulcers at the beginning of the small intestine) and up to 80 percent of gastric ulcers. As the most common cause of peptic ulcers, preventing the spread of the bacteria is essential to ulcer prevention.

Researchers have yet to determine how H. pylori spreads. The presence of H. pylori does not always trigger peptic ulcer disease; however, ulcers rarely occur without the presence of H. pylori unless a person uses NSAIDs.

The CDC recommends using certain safety precautions to help reduce the spread of H. pylori. These include washing hands thoroughly, following proper procedures in preparing food and drinking clean water. Other researchers believe H. pylori bacteria spread through person-to-person contact like kissing; however, researchers need to conduct further studies to confirm this theory.

NSAIDs and Ulcer Prevention

NSAIDs work as a pain reliever that many Americans use on a regular basis. The American Heart Association reported that in a study of people 65 years of age or older, 70 percent used NSAIDs on a weekly basis. The same study reported that 34 percent used NSAIDs daily. Researchers included the use of aspirin, which is an over-the-counter NSAID, and found 60 percent used it weekly.

NSAIDs act as a pain-reliever by prohibiting the development of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which triggers the body's inflammatory response. This enzyme also produces prostaglandin. In a healthy digestive system, prostaglandin protects the lining of the digestive tract from harmful aggressors, mainly stomach acid and a digestive enzyme called pepsin. Depending on the level of prostaglandin, people can become more susceptible to ulcers.

To prevent ulcers from forming, a person using NSAIDs should follow the recommended instructions on the medication. This includes how often to take the medication and for what duration.

People also need to be aware of what medications contain NSAIDs, since it is possible to take a medication without realizing it is a NSAID. In some cases, people may need to switch between medications to allow the body the opportunity to recuperate from the medication. When possible, an alternative pain reliever should be considered.

Other Preventive Measures

In the past, people with ulcers might have turned to a glass of milk as a preventive. Some doctors and patients believed that the milk would coat the stomach and protect the lining from stomach acid or pepsin. While doctors have proven that milk won't prevent ulcers, a healthy diet may.

People with acid reflux or gastric disorders often suffer from an increase in the amount of stomach acid. By paying attention to foods that trigger heartburn or other abdominal discomfort, a person can tailor his diet and remove the trigger. This helps reduce the amount of acid in the stomach and may help prevent ulcers.

Others things to consider are foods and drinks that cause an increase in stomach acid, including acidic fruits like oranges, carbonated beverages or alcohol. Aside from diet, a person might want to eliminate as many risk factors, like smoking and excessive use of alcohol, as possible.

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