Do you have a cast-iron stomach, or do you deal with stomachaches from time to time?
Stomachaches (or abdominal pain) happen between your chest and pelvis and may have many causes, like acid reflux or GERD, constipation or gallbladder attack. Another potential cause you may not be aware of – but which affects about half of the world’s population – is gastritis.
Gastritis is a gastrointestinal condition that affects the stomach lining, causing discomfort and various digestive symptoms. While it can be concerning, understanding its causes, symptoms and treatment options can help you manage and prevent this condition effectively.
What is gastritis?
Gastritis occurs when the stomach lining becomes inflamed (red and swollen).
Your stomach has a protective lining of mucus called gastric mucosa that protects it from the strong stomach acids and enzymes that help digest and break down food.
“Gastritis is a condition that has many potential causes,” said Kevin Liu, MD, a gastroenterologist with Banner – University Medicine. “When the protective lining of the stomach is weakened or injured, this can lead to changes in the gastric mucosa that can be seen on biopsies.”
Gastritis can occur suddenly (acute gastritis) or appear slowly over time (chronic gastritis).
Acute gastritis may last a day or two, while chronic gastritis can lead to ulcers and other conditions.
What causes gastritis?
Many cases of gastritis are caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection or regular use or overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve).
H. pylori is a very common bacterial infection that can cause gastritis or other upper gastrointestinal disorders.
“Around 30% of people in the United States will have an H. pylori infection,” Dr. Liu said. “H. pylori is a bacteria that can live on the lining of the stomach. For most people, it does not cause any symptoms, but it can lead to gastritis and ulcers in the lining of the GI tract.”
Regular use of NSAIDs can also irritate the stomach lining, leading to inflammation.
Other factors that can increase your risk for developing gastritis include:
- Excessive alcohol use: Heavy alcohol consumption can irritate and break down the lining of your stomach.
- Stress: While stress alone might not cause gastritis, it can worsen symptoms or increase your risk for inflammation.
- Autoimmune disorders: Sometimes the immune system attacks the stomach lining, causing autoimmune gastritis. This can happen in people with type 1 diabetes and Hashimoto’s disease (underactive thyroid).
- Bile reflux: Bile flowing back into the stomach can cause irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining.
- Other factors: Smoking, older age and certain medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease, can also increase the risk of gastritis.
What are the symptoms of gastritis?
Gastritis can cause a range of symptoms that vary from mild to severe. Some people may not experience noticeable symptoms, while others experience severe symptoms that disrupt their daily lives.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Stomach pain
- Burning sensation in the upper abdomen
- Loss of appetite (or feeling full soon after eating)
- Bloating and discomfort
See your health care provider if you have signs and symptoms for a week or longer.
More severe symptoms may include:
- Black blood in your stool or vomit
- Dizziness or fainting
If you are in severe pain, throwing up blood or have blood in your stools, contact your health care provider immediately to determine the cause.
How is gastritis diagnosed?
Because gastritis can mimic other gastrointestinal issues, your provider will run a series of diagnostic tests to confirm a gastritis diagnosis.
Diagnosing gastritis may involve the following:
- Medical history and physical exam: Your provider will review your medical history and perform a physical exam to assess your health and identify any signs of gastritis.
- Blood tests: These tests can reveal signs of infection, anemia or liver issues.
- Stool tests: To check for blood or infection.
- Upper endoscopy: A small, thin tube is inserted into your throat to look at the stomach lining and take biopsies if necessary. [Here’s what to know if your doctor says you need an endoscopy.]
- Imaging tests and breath tests: In some cases, these tests may be used to confirm a diagnosis.
What is the treatment for gastritis? Will it go away on its own?
“Treatment of gastritis is often focused on addressing the underlying cause,” Dr. Liu said. “This may mean cutting back or stopping the use of NSAIDs under the guidance of your doctor or getting evaluated and treated for H. pylori.”
Other treatment options may include the following:
- Antacids may be prescribed to relieve pain and neutralize stomach acids
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or H2 blockers to decrease the amount of acid produced by the stomach
- Antibiotics to treat H. pylori
- Lifestyle modifications:
- Reducing and managing stress levels
- Treating underlying conditions
- Quitting alcohol and smoking
- Eating smaller meals
- Avoiding food and drinks that irritate your stomach
[Check out “6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Gut Health Naturally” for more dietary tips.]
Are there any risks or complications associated with gastritis?
While most cases of gastritis can be managed, untreated or severe gastritis can lead to complications such as ulcers, bleeding and rarely, an increased risk of developing stomach cancer.
“Untreated gastritis can increase your risk of both ulcers forming and bleeding in the lining of your stomach,” Dr. Liu said. “H. pylori can also increase your risk of developing gastric MALT lymphoma.”
Gastritis can cause discomfort and disrupt your daily life, but understanding its causes, symptoms and treatment options empowers you to take control.
If you suspect gastritis is behind your stomach pains, talk to your health care provider or a gastroenterologist. By making informed choices and seeking timely medical help, you can effectively manage gastritis and maintain your digestive health.