Likelihood of developing an ulcer from stress?

Hey Alice,

This is my first year in college and I am pursuing pre-pharmacy, which is a competitive field right now. I am trying really hard to get A's in all of my classes to get accepted into a School of Pharmacy. I'm pretty stressed out. I was wondering what the likelihood would be of me to develop an ulcer? One of my sister's friends had a mild one, and my friend's dad had to drop out of med school cause he got one. I don't want the same fate. What are warning signs? I work out. Should I do aerobics to reduce stress? What can I do to minimize the chances of an ulcer?

Dear Reader,

Starting at a new school, getting good grades, and thinking about graduate school — it's clear that you've got plenty on your mind. However, worrying about having or giving yourself an ulcer does not have to be one of them. And while many believe stress to be a primary culprit, along with spicy foods, both of these external factors themselves don't actually cause ulcers. But, they can certainly increase your risk for developing ulcers. Since one of the main culprits of ulcers is bacteria, taking measures that protect against infection and support the stomach lining can be the most helpful. Read on to learn more!

Peptic ulcers, which are sores that form on the lining of the stomach or intestines, can largely be blamed on a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). This spiral-shaped microorganism is able to live within the human digestive system and, according to Mayo Clinic, about half of the world's population is infected with H. pylori, with most people showing no symptoms. While researchers aren't completely certain how the bacteria spreads, several likely routes have been discovered, which include coming in contact with human fecal matter or vomit, kissing or sharing saliva with someone who's infected, and ingesting contaminated food or drinking water.

With regards to the symptoms associated with ulcers, individuals may experience a dull, aching pain in the stomach/abdomen that comes and goes over an extended period of time. Additionally, individuals with ulcers may also experience:

  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Burping and bloating

Furthermore, given that ulcers can cause serious problems, such as internal bleeding or holes in the intestines, if you're experiencing symptoms such as a sudden, sharp, or persistent abdominal pain, have black or bloody stools, or have vomit that contains blood or looks similar to coffee grounds, it's recommended that you seek immediate medical attention.

In terms of prevention, a good way to prevent an ulcer is to guard against infection by H. pylori and to avoid activities that weaken the protective lining of the stomach, with some common recommendations including: 

  • Avoid using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) regularly. These medications, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can damage the lining of the stomach or small intestine, and regular, long-term use of NSAIDs may increase the risk for ulcers. If you must take these medications, try taking them with a meal to reduce irritation to the stomach.
  • Quit using tobacco if you haven't already. Some research has shown that smoking may adversely impact the protective lining of the stomach and increase the risk of developing ulcers.
  • Limit the use of alcoholThese drinks can irritate the lining in the stomach and intestines and cause inflammation, possibly resulting in the stomach becoming more susceptible to ulceration.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Given that H. pylori can be transmitted through human stools, washing your hands completely, tops and palms, with soap and water after using the bathroom, and dry them well can help reduce the transmission. 
  • Drink water from clean sources. Contaminated water can contain H. pylori.

Moreover, when it comes to treatment, a health care provider will usually treat ulcers caused by H. pylori by prescribing antibiotics that kill the bacterium. Furthermore, a medical provider can also prescribe medication that either reduces stomach acid production or protects your stomach and intestinal lining. Additionally, they can also prescribe antacids to neutralize existing stomach acid and provide some relief. If you're experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above, and you're worried you might have an ulcer, you can always make an appointment with your medical provider. They will be able to give you an examination and, if necessary, prescribe a course of treatment to help alleviate your symptoms.

As far as dealing with the stresses of being a student, you've got the right idea — regular physical activity is great! Whether it's aerobics or biking, playing squash, or dancing salsa, regular physical activity helps people relax, feel great, and maintain good health. If you look at the related Q&As listed, you'll get all sorts of tips, including other ways to reduce and manage stress, get more sleep, and eat a balanced diet.

Good luck making those As!

Last updated May 27, 2022
Originally published Nov 14, 2003

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