Nearly everyone experiences a bout of stomach pain or indigestion from time to time. In many cases, this irritation resolves on its own without medical intervention. Sometimes, however, the pain can be due to a health condition called gastritis. Gastritis is when the lining of the stomach becomes inflamed or irritated due to an infection, another health condition, or lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol, eating irritating foods, or overusing certain kinds of medications.
A person with gastritis may experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, or abdominal bloating. In severe cases, a person may have blood in their vomit and even develop anemia. How long the pain lasts, and how severe the gastritis is, depends on the type of gastritis a person has and what’s causing it.
With acute gastritis, a person experiences stomach inflammation in bursts. Chronic gastritis is more long-term and occurs slowly over time. While chronic gastritis occurs in two out of every 10,000 people, acute gastritis is much more common.
If you have gastritis symptoms, it’s important to talk to a doctor to determine the underlying cause. Most cases of gastritis can be treated, but a doctor needs to know what’s causing your gastritis to help you feel better.
What Is Gastritis?
Gastritis is when the lining of your stomach, known as the gastric mucosa, becomes inflamed. While a condition called gastroenteritis affects both the intestines and stomach, gastritis only affects the stomach. Often, the swelling and irritation that comes with gastritis is the result of a bacterial infection. Gastritis can also stem from other illnesses or certain lifestyle factors, like overuse of pain relievers and alcohol abuse.
All or part of the gastric mucosa can be involved in gastritis, and the condition can be either acute (short-term gastritis that resolves over days or weeks) or chronic (gastritis that persists over a long period of time).
With acute gastritis, pain usually comes on suddenly but is temporary, sometimes described as acute attacks or “flares”. Generally, acute gastritis lasts anywhere from 2-10 days and can be greatly improved with symptomatic treatment. People usually recover from acute gastritis without complications or need for further medical intervention.
Without treatment, chronic gastritis can last for weeks or even years. Chronic gastritis occurs over a long period of time, so it can gradually wear away at a person’s stomach lining. It’s important to seek evaluation and treatment for chronic gastritis, because it can lead to complications such as ulcers and bleeding.
Symptoms of Gastritis
The symptoms of gastritis can vary greatly depending on the cause and severity. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of gastritis include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal bloating
- Burning pain in the upper abdomen that gets worse after eating
- A feeling of fullness in the upper abdomen after eating
- Hiccups or burping
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
People with severe gastritis may experience:
- Vomiting blood or material that looks like coffee grounds
- Blood in the stool or black, tarry stools
- Anemia, a condition in which a person lacks enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues
What Causes Gastritis
Inflammation of the stomach lining can occur for a number of reasons. One of the most common causes is a bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). H. pylori is also one of the most common causes of peptic ulcers. Without treatment, the infection can lead to ulcers, or in rare cases, stomach cancer.
Other illnesses that can also cause gastritis include:
- Other bacterial or viral infections affecting the stomach
- Autoimmune diseases, in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells
- Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that leads to chronic inflammation in the GI tract
- Sarcoidosis, a condition in which tiny collections of inflammatory cells grow throughout the body
- Pernicious anemia, a type of anemia where the stomach lacks can’t properly absorb and digest vitamin B12
- Bile reflux, resulting in a backflow of the digestive secretions – bile – into the stomach
Certain lifestyle factors can also lead to stomach irritation and inflammation. These factors may include:
- Excessive alcohol use
- Chronic vomiting
- Chronic stress
- Overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin
Your symptoms, medical history, and a medical exam may be enough to diagnose gastritis. Other times, your doctor may want to perform one of the following tests to determine what’s causing your gastritis:
- H. pylori test: H. pylori can be detected in a blood test, stool test, or breath test, with the breath and stool tests most commonly used. They determine the presence of the H. pylori bacteria in the body, which can then be treated.
- Endoscopy: During an endoscopy, your doctor will look for inflammation in your upper digestive tract by passing a flexible tube with a lens down your throat and into your stomach. If your provider sees anything suspicious, such as ulcerations or other abnormal findings, they will take a tissue sample (biopsy) to send to a lab for diagnosis.
- X-ray: Occasionally, your doctor may find it useful to get an x-ray of your upper digestive tract. You may be asked to swallow barium, which coats your digestive tract, to make things like ulcers and strictures more visible.
How to Treat Gastritis
How a doctor treats your gastritis ultimately depends on its cause, chronicity, and your underlying medical conditions. If a doctor suspects your stomach inflammation stems from alcohol use or overuse of NSAIDs, for example, they may advise you to stop using those substances.
In other cases, a provider may recommend a medication to treat your gastritis. Common gastritis treatments include:
- Medications that block acid production: These may be prescription proton pump inhibitors or over-the-counter (OTC) medications like lansoprazole (Prevacid) or omeprazole (Prilosec).
- Antacids that neutralize stomach acid: These can relieve pain caused by gastritis, and include calcium carbonate (Tums or Alka-Seltzer), bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), or magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia).
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics, in combination with other medications, may used to treat infections caused by H. pylori bacteria.
While these treatments may help gastritis, injured stomach lining may take up to 12 weeks to heal. To lessen gastritis symptoms while healing, the following home remedies may help:
- Changing your diet: Eat smaller, more frequent meals to prevent indigestion and avoid inflammatory foods that could irritate your stomach lining, such as fried, fatty, spicy, or acidic foods, or gluten. You may also want to eat more foods like nuts, beans, eggs, cabbage, and asparagus, all of which contain glutamine, an amino acid that can help repair the stomach lining.
- Switching pain relievers: Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is less likely to irritate the stomach than aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil).
- Reducing alcohol consumption: Alcohol can irritate the stomach lining.
- Decreasing stress: You can try this through exercise, yoga, meditation, or mindfulness techniques.
- Taking preventative medications: such as sucralfate (Carafate) which coats your stomach lining and helps heal the ulcer.
While there’s no “gastritis diet,” focus on choosing foods that don’t irritate your stomach and foods that can promote healing of the stomach lining.
How to Prevent Gastritis
An overall healthy lifestyle is one way to prevent irritation and inflammation in your stomach lining. To prevent gastritis, focus on:
- Moderate alcohol consumption
- Avoiding smoking, since it can damage a person’s stomach lining
- Avoiding overly fatty or fried foods
- Taking probiotic supplements or eating foods with good bacteria, which can help improve digestion and encourage regular bowel movements
- Getting ample sleep and routine exercise, which can help reduce stress
To prevent gastritis from H. pylori, protect yourself from infection by regularly washing your hands, drinking clean water, and thoroughly cooking your food.
Risk Factors and Complications
Certain factors can increase a person’s risk for developing gastritis. These factors include:
- Habitual use of pain relievers: Can reduce a natural substance that helps protect the stomach lining
- Smoking: Damages stomach lining and may increase a person’s risk for an H. pylori infection
- Older age: The stomach lining thins as a person gets older, and older adults are more likely to develop infections and autoimmune diseases
- Alcohol abuse: Can irritate the stomach lining and makes the stomach more vulnerable to digestive juices
- Stress: Especially after an injury, surgery, or during severe infections
If gastritis goes untreated, complications may arise, such as stomach ulcers and subsequent bleeding in the stomach and GI tract. In rare cases, chronic gastritis may increase a person’s risk for stomach cancer. This is more common when people have excessive thinning of the stomach lining.
When to See a Doctor
It’s normal to experience some degree of indigestion or stomach irritation from time to time. But it’s important to talk to a provider or a K doctor if your stomach discomfort or gastritis symptoms last more than a week or interfere with your life.
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical care right away.
- Severe abdominal pain
- Vomiting blood
- Vomiting excessive amounts of yellow or green fluid
- Blood in stool or stool that appears black and tarry
- Dizziness or fainting
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