Overview of Ulcers

An ulcer is an open sore or lesion of the skin or mucous membrane. Ulcers can occur anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, from the lining of the mouth to the lining of the rectum. This article refers to ulcers that develop in the stomach and the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine).

Duodenal ulcers are more common than stomach ulcers, which also are called gastric ulcers. Duodenal ulcers are usually benign. Stomach ulcers may be a sign of gastric cancer.

The most common cause for ulcers is the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which can be acquired by ingesting contaminated food and water and through person-to-person contact. H. pylori infection causes inflammation of the inner lining of the stomach (gastritis).

People who worry excessively or keep their emotions inside develop ulcers more often than people with few worries or those who are open with their emotions. Diet (e.g., spicy foods, alcohol), as well as certain medications (e.g., aspirin) may also increase the risk for ulcers.

Ulcers in your stomach or duodenum may heal quickly if they are detected early and treated. If left untreated, an ulcer can worsen and cause complications, such as severe internal bleeding and anemia.

If the ulcer goes too deep, it may affect adjacent organs, such as the pancreas, or go through the lining of the stomach or duodenum (perforate). These complications are severe because they allow secretions and other substances to pass from the GI tract to other areas in the abdomen.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 May 2000

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2015