This unusual name identifies a specific bacteria that can cause infection of the stomach. This infection can contribute to the development of diseases, such as dyspepsia (heartburn, bloating and nausea), gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), and ulcers in the stomach and duodenum. It will be useful to know some things about the upper digestive tract to understand how and where Helicobacter pylori infection can occur.
When food is swallowed, it passes through the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach). It then enters the large upper part of the stomach. A strong acid that helps to break down food is secreted in the stomach. The narrower, lower part of the stomach is called the antrum. The antrum contracts frequently and vigorously, grinding up the food and squirting it into the small intestine. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine, just beyond the stomach. The stomach, including the antrum, is covered by a layer of mucous that protects it from the strong stomach acid.
It is known that alcohol, aspirin and arthritis drugs such as ibuprofen can disrupt the protective mucous layer. This allows the strong stomach acid to injure underlying stomach cells. In some people, corticosteroids, smoking, and stress appear to contribute in some way. Until the mid 1990’s, it was felt that one or more of these factors working together led to the development of gastritis and ulcers. Since that time, evidence has been mounting that Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) has a major role in causing these diseases.
H. pylori is a fragile bacteria that has found an ideal home in the protective mucous layer of the stomach. These bacteria have long threads protruding from them that attach to the underlying stomach cells. The mucous layer that protects the stomach cells from acid also protects H. pylori. These bacteria do not actually invade the stomach cells as certain other bacteria can. The infection, however, is very real and it does cause the body to react. Infection-fighting white blood cells move into the area, and the body even develops H. pylori antibodies in the blood.
H. pylori infection probably occurs when an individual swallows the bacteria in food, fluid, or perhaps from contaminated utensils. The infection is likely one of the most common worldwide. The rate of infection increases with age, so it occurs more often in older people. It also occurs frequently in young people in the developing countries of the world, since the infection tends to be more common where sanitation is poor or living quarters are cramped. In many cases it does not produce symptoms. In other words, the infection can occur without the person knowing it. The infection remains localized to the gastric area, and probably persists until a specific treatment is given.
How is H. Pylori Infection Diagnosed?