Saturday, June 13, 2015

Helicobacter Pylori, a Little Bacteria with Big Consequences

From the sixth grade until the eighth grade I had debilitating pain in my abdomen roughly thirty minutes to an hour after each meal that I ate. In addition to that I was always bloated, frequently nauseous after I started to eat, and no matter how much I ate I would lose weight. My doctor was baffled at what it could be and I endured months of tests--mostly blood work--and doctor’s appointments before he finally figured it out: my stomach was riddled with the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori (H. pylori).
About half of the world's population is actually infected with this bacteria, but most people do not have any symptoms or have any problems linked with H. pylori. In addition to the symptoms that I experienced, one could possibly encounter a loss of appetite or frequent burping.  The complications of H. pylori are far worse than the pain in the abdomen (and it is

not easy pain). H. pylori can lead to an inflammation of the lining of the stomach due to irritation, ulcers, or stomach cancer. Roughly one in ten people with H. pylori develop an ulcer.
When someone comes into the doctor's office with the symptoms of H. pylori, there are several ways that they can be tested for the bacteria. I was diagnosed by a blood test, which is the least accurate way of determining active H. pylori. A blood test simply tests whether or not there are antibodies for H. pylori, which would appear to be positive even if that strand of H. pylori was not harmful or the body had already defeated it.  Another option is testing the breath after taking medication that would give off carbon if in the presence of H. pylori. Certain medicines in your system can affect the validity of the breath test, though. Fecal matter can be tested for antigens that would lead the doctor to the conclusion that H. pylori is present, but the same medicines can affect this test. Lastly, the doctor can sedate the patient and perform an endoscopy exam which involves putting a long tube down the patient's throat with a camera on the end to view the inside of the stomach and to take a biopsy of the tissue to test for H. pylori directly. However, due the invasive nature of this test, it is typically reserved for diagnosing ulcers associated with H. pylori or in a last effort to definitively rule out other conditions. 
Once diagnosed, the treatment for H. pylori is fairly simple. The doctor will typically prescribe two types of antibiotics because of the resilience of the bacteria and its ability to develop a resistance to the antibiotic. On top of that, doctors give medication designed to block acid in the stomach in order to start the healing process of the stomach lining. There are several options for acid blockers such as proton pump inhibitors (ex: Prevacid), histamine blockers (ex: Zantax), or bismuth subsalicylate (ex: Pepto-Bismol). With the resilience of this bacteria, it is also important that the patient is tested at least a month after treatment has ended to see if another round of antibiotics are necessary.  
All of the information dealing with the treatment of ulcers caused by H. pylori can be attributed to Dr. Barry Marshall. In the 1980s, it was thought that ulcers were caused by stress but Marshall knew that was not true—he knew that they were caused by H. pylori. After seeing patient after patient die from severe ulcers that were not caused by stress, he knew that he had to do something about it. The bacteria would not grow in lab mice to be tested, so he infected himself with a very bad strain of H. pylori to see if it would give him an ulcer and then if he could treat it. It is because of this man’s devotion to the health of his patients and this courageous experiment that H. pylori has become severely less deadly and highly treatable.


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