What is H. Pylori?
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a type of bacteria that grows in the digestive tract. H. Pylori infections occur when this bacteria builds up in the lining of the stomach.
The combination of H. pylori bacteria and stomach acid is a common cause of stomach ulcers, ulcers in the small intestine and inflammation of the stomach lining (which is called gastritis) (1). This infection can also increase the risk of stomach cancer (2-3).
The way in which H. pylori infections spread isn’t entirely clear, but the most likely causes are thought to be (4):
- Consuming poo particles in contaminated food or water, or from not washing hands properly after going to the toilet.
- Passed on from kissing, sharing utensils or living in close proximity with other people.
- From contact with vomit.
It is thought that more than a third of people in the UK have a H. pylori infection (1)
H. pylori infections are often present without experiencing any symptoms related to this, as some people seem to be resistant to harm caused by H. pylori.
Whereas other people may experience symptoms such as:
- An ache or burning pain in your stomach – especially when it is empty
- Loss of appetite
- Heartburn / indigestion
⚠ You should see your doctor urgently if: you have severe stomach pain, your symptoms are ongoing, you see blood in your poo or vomit, you have trouble swallowing, or if you experience stomach issues alongside unexpected weight loss.
How is it Diagnosed?
Your doctor can check whether you have H. pylori by assessing your symptoms, doing a physical examination and testing for the presence of the H. pylori bacteria.
There are a few different tests which can be used for this:
- A blood test which checks for the presence of antibodies for H. pylori. However, this test won’t be used if you have previously been treated for H. pylori, as it doesn’t show whether the infection has been cleared.
- A poo sample can be examined to see whether it contains H. pylori proteins.
- A breath test for H. pylori involves consuming a drink containing urea, then carbon dioxide levels in the breath are measured.
- If you are having an endoscopy (a camera which goes down the food pipe and into the stomach or gut) your doctor may take a sample from the stomach which can be examined the lab to see whether it contains H. pylori bacteria.
⚠ Stool sample tests, breath tests and stomach biopsy tests for H. Pylori can produce false results if you have recently taken antibiotics or medication to treat an ulcer.
H. pylori infections which are causing symptoms are usually treated with a course of antibiotics for 1-2 weeks. An effective treatment option is known as ‘triple therapy’ – this involves taking two types of antibiotics along with an antacid so that the antibiotics can work more effectively in the stomach.
⚠ It is important to finish the full course of antibiotics in order to get the best results from the treatment. Speak to your doctor if you experience unpleasant side effects related to this.
Following treatment, you will be re-tested for H. pylori to make sure that the infection has cleared. It is also advised that those who are on long-term medication for indigestion are reviewed annually by their doctor (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg184/chapter/1-Recommendations#helicobacter-pylori-testing-and-eradication).
There is no strong evidence that changes to the diet can be used to treat H. pylori. However, it is usually a good idea to avoid food and drinks which may irritate the stomach while it is healing, such as alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods.
Eating a balanced Mediterranean diet which is high in healthy fats and antioxidants may have an antibacterial effect on H. pylori (5), so this may be helpful alongside medical treatment (not to mention the numerous other health benefits related to the Mediterranean diet!).
Some studies have found that consuming specific probiotics (which contain Saccharomyces boulardii or Lactobacillus reuteri) alongside medical treatment for H. pylori may improve recovery (6).
Where to Find Support:
- Speak to your GP if you suspect that you might be infected with H. pylori
- Hooi et al. (2017) “Global Prevalence of Helicobacter pylori Infection: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. Gastroenterology, 153(2): 420-429.
- De Martel et al. (2012) “Global burden of cancers attributable to infections in 2008: a review and synthetic analysis”. Lancet Oncol, 13: 607-615.
- Lee et al. (2016) “Association Between Helicobacter pylori Eradication and Gastric Cancer Incidence: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”. Gastroenterology, 150 (5): 1113-1124.
- Stone (1999) “Transmission of Helicobacter pylori”. BMJ Post Graduate Medical Journal. 75 (882).
- Holubiuk & Imiela (2016) “Diet and Helicobacter pylori infection”. Prz Gastroenterol, 11(3): 150–154.
- Homan & Orel (2015) “Are probiotics useful in Helicobacter pylori eradication?”. World J Gastroenterol, 7;21(37):10644-53.