10 Causes of Ulcers that May Shock You

What are Ulcers?

According to Harvard Health, 1 in 10 people will experience an ulcer at some point during their lives. Ulcers are sores that can develop in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. This tract includes the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. These ulcers are incredibly common and are caused by an equally commonplace variety of causes. 

Symptoms

The symptoms for ulcers can also overlap with other (much more) serious conditions. It is important to see your doctor if you start to experience any of the following symptoms of ulcers: 

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Excessive gas
  • Fatigue

Complications

Is this condition dangerous?

The answer to this question depends on how the ulcer is progressing. Many people have ulcers, but they are so mild that they don’t even notice. Other times, ulcers can lead to severe complications. These complications can include: 

  • Hemorrhages
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Gastric obstruction

Causes of Ulcers

So, just what causes ulcers, anyway?...

1. Helicobacter Pylori Bacteria 

These bacteria are very common; in fact, they live in and on the stomach lining of most adults. While these bacteria are usually harmless, they can lead to ulcers sometimes.

Why H. Pylori Bacteria Can Cause Ulcers

These bacteria can irritate the lining of the stomach, which causes the stomach lining to become inflamed. Over time, this irritation and inflammation wears down the stomach lining and can cause ulcers.

It is not currently known how these bacteria spreads, but some researchers believe that they can be transmitted either through kissing or as a food and waterborne illness. 

What the Ulcer is Like

These ulcers can either have many or no symptoms. Depending on the individual, you can feel:

  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Upset stomach
  • Blood in the stool for severe cases

Other Symptoms of Helicobacter Pylori Bacteria 

These bacteria are mostly known to cause ulcers. While this is the main symptom and complication, there are a few other things to look out for:

  • Unintended weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the stomach 

Bacteria like H. pylori can take advantage of an immune system compromised by stress, another culprit behind many an ulcer...

2. Stress

Stress is another possible cause of stomach ulcers, as stress has wide-ranging effects on human health. Many of the consequences of too much stress are seen in the digestive system; ulcers are just one example of this manifestation.

Why Stress Can Cause Ulcers

The digestive system is very sensitive to stress. Specifically, too much anxiety and stress can cause the digestive system to start to behave abnormally. Stress also lowers our immune response, which opens the door for ulcer-causing bacteria to set up shop in the stomach. Of course, stress can also make other ulcer causing conditions much worse. 

What the Ulcer is Like

Ulcers caused by stress feel like normal ulcers, except their problems are worsened. In other words, stress acts like a magnifier on whatever was causing the ulcers in the first place. This magnification can cause people to feel:

  • Nausea
  • Pain in the stomach and intestines
  • Like their ulcers have gotten much worse

Other Symptoms of Stress

Stress has many detrimental effects on the body. The symptoms of too much stress are numerous. That being said, just a few are:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Pain in the chest
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite 

There are also medications that have an effect very similar to stress on the body, which—you probably guessed it—can lead to ulcers...

3. Pain Relievers

Certain over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are known to worsen ulcers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, more commonly referred to as NSAIDs. These painkillers are well-known for the damage they can cause to the stomach in people who are at risk for stomach and digestive problems.  

Why Pain Relievers Can Cause Ulcers 

NSAIDs irritate the stomach lining. This irritation can lead to ulcers or much more severe conditions. In people with a history of stomach problems such as ulcers, taking NSAIDs can therefore be risky.

What the Ulcer is Like

Like stress, this medication can magnify your already-existing ulcers. The symptoms of this kind of ulcer include:

  • Increased ulcer symptoms
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea

Other Symptoms of Pain Reliever Problems

NSAIDs can have extremely serious side effects. If you notice any of the following, you need to contact your doctor right away. 

  • Stomach bleeding
  • Blood in stool
  • Intense abdominal pain

Some of the things that make ulcers worse don’t actually cause the ulcers so much as they aggravate pre-existing ulcers...

4. Smoking

It’s well-known at this point that smoking is not good for your health. Smoking causes wide-ranging health problems that affect the entire body. While the damage to lungs is the most widely known, smoking can also make ulcers worse.

Why Smoking Can Cause Ulcers

Smoking aggravates ulcers. People who have ulcers because of a bacterial infection are especially at risk for smoking making their ulcers worse.  Why? Because smoking tobacco products is linked to both a weaker immune system and higher stress level, which are conditions that bacteria thrive in. 

What the Ulcer is Like

These ulcers are just like ulcers caused by a bacterial infection. You can expect that the symptoms will be very similar and include:

  • Pain in the digestive tract
  • Feeling tired or sluggish
  • Feeling like your ulcers are getting worse

Other Symptoms of Smoking

Smoking has many symptoms. Effects of this drug can be felt all throughout the body. Here are just a few of the most notable effects of smoking:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Higher risk of cancer
  • Bad breath

Unlike smoking, there are even some otherwise healthy habits that increase the risk of ulcers...

5. Spicy Food

Spicy food may be delicious, but it can also make ulcers worse.

The chemical that makes food spicy is called capsaicin. Now, this chemical is given off by plants as a defense mechanism. While it was supposed to ward animals away, humans wound up finding a way to turn it into tasty food. However, in some people, it can make ulcers worse.

Why Spicy Food Can Cause Ulcers

That same chemical that adds a little heat to some of our favorite dishes can also irritate ulcers. Capsaicin is known to irritate sensitive parts of the body. Eyes, nose, and even the mouth can sting or burn if too much capsaicin contacts these areas.

Ulcers are already damaged areas of the stomach and intestines. When capsaicin hits these damaged spots, it can cause the ulcers to become worse.

What the Ulcer is Like

Similar to a few things on this list, capsaicin acts like a magnifier on your already-existing ulcers. While it turns up the heat in our food, it can also turn up the intensity of ulcer symptoms. These symptoms can include:

  • Increased and sudden pain after eating
  • Persistent discomfort while the spicy food is present in the digestive system
  • Acid reflux, nausea, and vomiting 

Other Symptoms of Too Much Spicy Food

Spicy food is great on flavor, but too much spice can be a dangerous thing. Pure capsaicin can only be bought with a special license and is not usually available for average use. It is one of the ingredients in pepper spray, after all! If you have too much capsaicin in your system, you can experience: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Watery eyes and a runny nose
  • Extreme cases have even lead to hospitalization 

Like spicy food, too much alcohol also makes ulcers worse...

6. Alcohol

Many of the foods we eat are actually slightly poisonous. We already talked about capsaicin, but other slightly dangerous—albeit very common—foods and drinks include raw almonds and alcohol.

In normal amounts, these foods and drinks aren’t harmful. Alcohol, however, stands out. Not only is it easier to get a toxic dose, but it also upsets ulcers even in smaller doses.

Why Alcohol Can Cause Ulcers

Alcohol is technically toxic to the human body. The experience of being intoxicated is actually a kind of poisoning, albeit one that some adults find enjoyable. Stomach ulcers take a different perspective on this issue. As with capsaicin, the already exposed and damaged ulcers react poorly to alcohol and can worsen. 

What the Ulcer is Like

Alcohol makes ulcer symptoms worse and causes them to last longer. This interaction combines with some of the negative effects of drinking alcohol to form some nasty combinations. These risks can include:  

  • Higher risk of bleeding
  • Great-than-usual nausea
  • Increased gas or irritated digestive system 

Other Symptoms of too Much Alcohol

There are many negative symptoms from drinking too much alcohol, including: 

  • Risk of addiction
  • Hangovers
  • Impaired vision

Beyond basic stomach ulcers, there are causes for a more severe form of the condition, known as ulcerative colitis...

7. Autoimmune Conditions

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a chronic inflammation of the bowels and rectum. This condition not only causes ulcers, but can even lead to different types of cancer if left untreated. One of the biggest causes of UC? An autoimmune disorder. 

Why Autoimmune Conditions Can Cause Ulcers

Autoimmune conditions are strange phenomena. These conditions are caused when the body falsely identifies parts of itself as a foreign body. In this case, the lining of the digestive system is falsely identified and then attacked by a person’s own immune system. This autoimmune attack aggravates the lining of the digestive system and causes ulcers. 

What the Ulcer is Like

These ulcers are located in the intestines rather than in the stomach. This makes their symptoms more noticeable and more severe. These symptoms include: 

  • Intense pain in the abdomen 
  • Blood in stool or diarrhea 
  • Constipation
  • Wide ranging effects on the body including fatigue and anemia  

Other Symptoms of Autoimmune Conditions

Each autoimmune disease has its own symptoms. However, despite these differences, they all share a few in common:

  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Swelling
  • Aching muscles
  • Low-grade fever

The autoimmune disease that causes ulcers can also have a genetic component...

8. Genetics

Your genetics determine much about your health. We can look to our parents for a good guess as to what diseases we will face as we age, for example. Ulcers are no exception. Ulcerative colitis is common in children whose parents have also faced this disease. 

Why Genetics Can Cause Ulcers

Your genetic makeup represents the instructions that determine how your body is put together. These instructions can also cause medical problems in some cases. UC is more common in people with a family history of the disease. This occurrence suggests that it is passed down as part of our genetics. 

What the Ulcer is Like

UC can have some striking symptoms. While these symptoms may be shared by other disorders, they are nevertheless extreme and need to be investigated by your doctor:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Inability to defecate 
  • Abdominal pain and cramps

Other Genetic Factors

In addition to our family histories, there are other genetic factors to consider. Researchers do not currently know which genes are responsible for this condition, but it is likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors. These factors can include:

  • Parents with a history of ulcerative colitis 
  • Diet and lifestyle that make ulcers more likely
  • Chronic bacterial infections 

In addition to these seemingly obvious factors, there is another potential cause of ulcers that might seem strange at first...

9. Improved Sanitation

Our clean water is possibly the single greatest invention in modern history. Specifically, safe water supplies represent one of the best advances in terms of the quality of human health. However, some research suggests that we might have had an incomplete understanding of bacteria when we removed most of it from our water. 

Why Improved Sanitation Can Increase the Risk for Ulcers

Some research suggests that having some bacteria in your water supply might actually be good for you. "Good" bacteria live alongside humans and actually help our health. They are most commonly found in the digestive system and without them we couldn’t digest our food. By getting rid of all of these good bacteria, we might have increased our risk of ulcerative colitis. 

What the Ulcer is Like

Like all cases of ulcerative colitis, this one has a few common symptoms:

  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Blood in the stool
  • Frequently upset stomach

Our changing relationship to bacteria isn’t the only environmental factor shaping our gut health, though... 

10. Environmental Factors

The world we live in has an impact on our health. Experts have associated, for example, cases of ulcerative colitis with areas that have high rates of pollution. 

Why Environmental Factors Can Cause Ulcers

Air pollution in particular can aggravate ulcers. Why? Well, higher rates of pollution tax the body's natural defenses, which opens the door for bacterial infections. It also lowers our ability to manage diseases and makes chronic conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, worse. 

What the Ulcer is Like

These ulcers are similar to most other types. Their symptoms can feel like: 

  • Upset stomach
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea

Other Symptoms of these Environmental Factors

If you are in an area with increased pollution, you might notice other health problems, like: 

  • Trouble breathing
  • Allergies
  • Lower quality of life 

Final Thoughts

Ulcers and ulcerative colitis are incredibly common diseases. Their factors range from genetics to our diets; this list should give you a good idea as to what can aggravate ulcers. If you’ve been experiencing ulcers or are at risk, get in touch with your doctor about how you can manage these risk factors. 


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