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H. Pylori Screen at the Dublin Health Screen

What is H. pylori infection and who does it affect?

Helicobacter pylori (commonly just called H. pylori) is a bacterium (germ). It can infect the lining of the stomach and duodenum. It is one of the most common infections in Ireland. More than a quarter of people in Ireland become infected with H. pylori at some stage in their life. Once you are infected, unless treated, the infection usually stays for the rest of your life. Note the most sensitive screen for H. Pylori is from a stool test. Note Fecal occult blood test for bowel cancer is done at the same time.

What problems does H. pylori cause?

Usually none

Most people who are infected with H. pylori have no symptoms and do not know that they are infected. A number of these bacteria may just live harmlessly in the lining of the stomach and duodenum.

Stomach and duodenal ulcers

H. pylori is the most common cause of duodenal and stomach ulcers. About 3 in 20 people who are infected with H. pylori develop an ulcer. An ulcer is where the lining of the stomach or duodenum is damaged by the acid which is made in the stomach, and the underlying tissue is exposed. If you could see inside your gut, an ulcer looks like a small, red crater on the lining of the stomach or duodenum.

The exact way H. pylori causes ulcers in some infected people is not totally clear. Your stomach normally produces acid to help with the digestion of food and to kill bacteria. This acid is corrosive so some cells on the inside lining of the stomach and duodenum produce a natural mucus barrier which protects the lining of the stomach and duodenum. There is normally a balance between the amount of acid that you make and the mucus defense barrier. An ulcer may develop if there is an alteration in this balance allowing the acid to damage the lining of the stomach or duodenum. In some people H. pylori causes inflammation in the lining of the stomach or duodenum. This causes the defence mucus barrier to be disrupted in some way (and in some cases the amount of acid to be increased) which seems to allow the acid to cause inflammation and ulcers.

Non-ulcer dyspepsia

This is a condition where you have recurrent bouts of indigestion (dyspepsia) which are not caused by an ulcer or inflammation. It is sometimes called functional dyspepsia. H. pylori is sometimes found in people with non-ulcer dyspepsia. Getting rid of H. pylori cures some cases, but makes no difference in most cases. The cause of most cases of non-ulcer dyspepsia is not known.

Stomach cancer

The risk of developing stomach cancer is thought to be increased with long-term infection with H. pylori. However, it has to be stressed that more than a quarter of people in Ireland become infected with this bacterium, and the vast majority do not get stomach cancer. The increased risk is small. Your risk may be greater if you have H. pylori in addition to having a first degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister or child) who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Gastric mucosa associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma - a MALToma

This is a rare and unusual type of stomach cancer. Infection with H. pylori is thought play a role in this condition developing.

How is H. pylori diagnosed?

Various tests can detect H. pylori:

  • The most accurate test is the 'stool antigen test'. In this test you give a pea-sized sample of your faeces (stools) which is tested for H. pylori. Note: prior to this test you should not have taken any antibiotics for at least four weeks. Also, you should not have taken a proton pump inhibitor or H2 blocker drug for at least two weeks. (These are acid suppressing drugs.)

How is H. pylori cleared from the stomach and duodenum?

H. pylori is killed by certain antibiotics. However, a combination of drugs is needed to completely get rid of it. You need to take two antibiotics at the same time. In addition, you need to take a drug to reduce the acid in the stomach. This allows the antibiotics to work well in the stomach. You need to take this 'combination therapy' for a week. It is important to take all the drugs exactly as directed, and to take the full course.

Combination therapy clears H. pylori in up to 9 in 10 cases if it is taken correctly for the full course. If you do not take the full course then the chance of clearing the infection is reduced. A second course of combination therapy, using different antibiotics, will usually work if the first course does not clear the infection.

Combination therapy is sometimes called 'triple therapy' as it involves three drugs - two antibiotics and an acid-suppressing drug.

Who should be tested for H. pylori, and treated if it is found?

If you have recurring 'dyspepsia' (recurring indigestion symptoms)

If you have recurring dyspepsia, it is common practice to test for H. pylori before doing any other tests. If H. pylori is found, then combination treatment is often given. The exact diagnosis may not be known. For example, it might not be clear if the dyspepsia is caused by a duodenal or stomach ulcer, or non-ulcer dyspepsia. These can only be confirmed by having a 'look down' into the gut with a test called gastroscopy (endoscopy). However, if symptoms go after treatment for H. pylori, then that is the end of the matter. You do not need further tests such as gastroscopy. You will not know exactly what caused the symptoms, but it does not matter: if the symptoms have gone, whatever was causing them will have gone!

Other reasons for testing

If you are in one of the following groups, you may be offered a test for H. pylori and offered treatment with combination therapy if it is found. If you:

  • Have a duodenal or stomach ulcer. Combination therapy will usually cure the ulcer.
  • Have non-ulcer dyspepsia. Combination therapy may work and clear symptoms, but it does not in most cases.
  • Have a first degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister or child) who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Treatment is advised even if you do not have any symptoms. The aim is to reduce your future risk of stomach cancer.
  • Are taking, or are about to take, long-term anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, diclofenac, aspirin, etc. The combination of these drugs and H. pylori increases the risk of developing a stomach ulcer.[
  • Have a MALToma (mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma).
  • Have atrophic gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining).
  • Have had an operation to remove a stomach cancer.
  • Have unexplained iron deficiency anaemia.
  • Have a condition called chronic idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. This is an uncommon blood condition where the number of platelets in the blood becomes very low. Some research suggests a possible connection between H. pylori infection and this condition.

Follow up

After 'combination therapy', a test may be advised to check that H. pylori has gone (has been eradicated).

Are there any side-effects of combination therapy?

Up to 3 in 10 people develop some side-effects when they take combination therapy. These include: indigestion, feeling sick, diarrhoea, and headaches. However, it is worth persevering for the full course if side-effects are not too bad. A switch to a different set of drugs may be advised if the first combination does not clear the H. pylori, or if it caused bad side-effects and you had to stop taking it.

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