Stressed about an ulcer? Take a deep breath...


The Food and Drug Administration has just approved a test that will make it cheaper and easier to pinpoint and treat ulcers. The new diagnostic procedure detects the presence of a corkscrew-shaped bacterium that causes ulcers when it burrows into the mucous membrane of the intestine and stomach and secretes an enzyme that weakens the organ's lining. Called Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium was identified in the early 1980s, leading scientists to conclude that spicy foods and stress do not cause ulcers, as conventional wisdom had long held.

The discovery of H. pylori has created a paradigm shift in ulcer treatment. It used to be that physicians would tell patients to go on restrictive diets or cut their hours on the job. Now doctors can prescribe a 2-week course of antibiotics to kill the problem bacteria.

The hitch is that the only test available until now to check for H. pylori is invasive and expensive. Known as an endoscopy, it involves sedating the patient and inserting a lighted tube through the mouth and esophagus and into the stomach or intestine. Then a small sample of the organ's lining is removed and analyzed in a lab to check for H. pylori.

The newly approved test, the Meretek UBT Breath Test, is much simpler and less expensive. For this procedure, the patient simply drinks a liquid to which a harmless substance called urea has been added. The patient then exhales into a tube hooked up to high-tech equipment that measures components of the breath. If H. pylori is present, it produces a substance called urease, an enzyme that breaks down urea into compounds that can be detected by the equipment.

Note that while H. pylori is responsible for most intestinal ulcers, chronic ingestion of anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen causes an estimated 70 to 80 percent of stomach ulcers. The drugs, which are often taken by people with arthritis or another chronic condition, are extremely irritating to the stomach. Even these ulcer sufferers, however, should be tested for H. pylori. If they have the bug, they should be treated with antibiotics to eradicate it. They may also have to take antacids or acid-suppress-ing drugs over the long term to help minimize drug-induced stomach irritation.

For more information about the detection and treatment of ulcers, write the American Digestive Health Foundation at 1201 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036. Or call 1-800-NO-ULCER.

Share this with your friends