UH Digestive Health Experts Provide Advanced Care for Esophageal Ulcers
An esophageal ulcer is an open sore that develops on the lining of your esophagus, often at the lower end where the esophagus connects with the stomach. Ulcers may occur when the layer of tissue that lines and protects the esophagus is thinned or worn away completely, making the esophagus more susceptible to damage from stomach acid. Esophageal ulcers are a type of peptic ulcer, which can also occur in the stomach and the upper portion of the small intestine.
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What are the symptoms of an esophageal ulcer?
Although some patients don't experience any symptoms, the most common symptom of an esophageal ulcer is a burning pain in the chest (heartburn) which can be mild or severe. Additional symptoms may include:
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Pain that is lessened by eating, drinking, or taking antacids
- Nausea or vomiting
- Acid reflux or indigestion
- Dry cough
What causes esophageal ulcers?
The most common cause of esophageal ulcers is a bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which damages the lining of the esophagus. Patients with gastroesophageal disease (GERD) are also at greater risk for the development of esophageal ulcers.
Additional medical and lifestyle factors that may contribute to the development of esophageal ulcers include:
- Certain medications such as potassium
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Frequent use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen
- Other bacterial, fungal, or viral infections, especially in people with compromised immune systems
Stress and spicy foods do not cause ulcers as previously thought, but they may aggravate an existing ulcer.
Expert Diagnosis and Treatment for Esophageal Ulcers
The digestive health experts at University Hospitals use the latest techniques to diagnose esophageal conditions, including ulcers. The most common diagnostic test is the upper endoscopy in which a long, flexible tube called an endoscope is passed down the esophagus through the mouth. The doctor is able to examine the inside of the esophagus and look for abnormalities. If something suspicious is seen, the doctor can also take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) that will then be examined under a microscope in the laboratory.
If an esophageal ulcer is found, the treatment will depend on the cause. Acid reflux is the most common cause of esophageal ulcers. Medications, such as potassium supplements, antibiotics, osteoporosis treatments and other pills frequently cause esophageal ulcers due to the caustic nature of their chemical properties. Acid reflux and medication or “pill ulcers” may occur at the same time.
If caused by an infection, you may be prescribed antibiotics, antiviral or antifungal medications depending on the type of infection. If your doctor thinks the ulcer might be caused by the overuse of NSAIDs, he or she may advise that you use a different type of pain medication. Additional medications may include over-the-counter acid-reducers and/or prescription proton pump inhibitors. Both of these medications help to reduce stomach acid, allowing the esophagus to heal.
Untreated, esophageal ulcers can lead to considerable physical damage. Fortunately, they can usually be successfully treated with a combination of medications, diet and lifestyle changes.