Symptoms of Peptic Ulcers

Woman with stomach cramps
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Peptic ulcers are open wounds found either in the stomach (gastric ulcers) or the upper part of the small intestine, otherwise known as the duodenum (duodenal ulcers). They are caused by irritation of the stomach or small intestinal lining. Peptic ulcers can cause a variety of symptoms, such as pain, discomfort, or gas, though some people may not experience any symptoms at all.

Peptic ulcers can get worse, may bleed, and can cause a perforation (hole) or obstruction (blockage) in the digestive system—all serious emergencies. This is why you should consult your doctor if you notice any related symptoms. 

Common Symptoms

Pain is the most common symptom of a peptic ulcer. It is typically located in the upper part of the abdomen, but you may also feel it in your back. Your pain may be dull, burning, or gnawing; it is less commonly intense or stabbing.

Other common symptoms of peptic ulcers include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Discomfort, bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic nausea or a sense of discomfort with eating
  • Frequent burping
  • Fatigue or weakness, which can result from malnutrition or due to small amounts of bleeding from the ulcer
  • Blood in the stool that is black and tarry in appearance
  • Watery diarrhea

Many people with peptic ulcers particularly complain of pain on an empty stomach.

You may experience relief immediately after eating only to have pain return or worsen within an hour. This brief reprieve does not cause people with ulcers to overeat, however, as frequent nausea and discomfort can squash appetite or the desire to eat. Some people feel that certain foods (like fatty choices) exacerbate the symptoms, while other foods either alleviate or do not affect them.

Often, the pain is worse at night or in the morning, but it can vary. The duration of pain can last from a few minutes to a few hours.

Symptoms of peptic ulcers can occur as a result of other conditions, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic dyspepsia, gallbladder disease, liver disease, or a gastrointestinal infection. It's important to see your doctor to determine what's at the root of your pain.

Complications

There are a number of complications that can occur if you have a chronic or worsening peptic ulcer. 

Common complications include:

  • Malnutrition: You can become deficient in vitamins and minerals due to low food intake. Immune deficiencies, bone weakness, and skin fragility can all result from malnutrition, but may not be noticeable at first. However, malnutrition is not common in today's world as a complication of peptic ulcers.
  • Perforation: An ulcer can eventually wear away at the lining of the stomach or small intestine, causing a perforation (hole), which can leak gastrointestinal fluid into the body. This is an emergency that requires urgent medical treatment. 
  • Obstruction: An ulcer can become inflamed, blocking the passageway of digested food and causing severe dysfunction of the small intestine. Like perforation, this is a medical emergency. 

    When to See a Doctor

    Many people are prone to peptic ulcers, but there are some habits that can contribute to their development, such as taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and smoking. These habits can cause peptic ulcers by interfering with your natural production of the mucus that coats your digestive system to protect it from acidity, abrasion, and bleeding. 

    You may feel relief with an antacid, but you should not ignore symptoms of a peptic ulcer. If you have persistent symptoms for longer than a week, it is best to see your doctor. He or she will determine whether you need prescription medications and whether you have complications, such as bleeding or anemia.

     

    Make an appointment with your doctor if you have:

    • Pain that radiates to the back
    • Pain that doesn't go away when you take medication
    • Unintended weight loss
    • Weakness, fatigue
    • Vomiting
    • Difficulty swallowing

    There are also some serious symptoms for which you need to call or see a doctor immediately: 

    • Vomiting blood
    • Black or tar-like stool
    • Sudden, severe pain in the abdominal area
    • Fevers, chills, shaking, dizziness, or loss of consciousness
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