This unusual name identities 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 larger upper part of the stomach. A strong acid that helps to break down the 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 1980s, 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.
How is H. pylori Infection Diagnosed?
There are currently three ways to diagnose H. pylori infection. During endoscopy (a visual exam of the stomach through a thin, lighted, flexible tube), the physician can remove small bits of tissue through the tube. The tissue is then tested for the bacteria. A breath test is now available. In this test, a substance called urea is given by mouth. A strong enzyme in the bacteria breaks down the urea into carbon dioxide, which is then exhaled and can be measured. And finally, there is a blood test that measures the protein antibodies against these bacteria that are present in the blood. This antibody can mean the infection is present, or that it was present in the past and is now cleared.