According to the Spanish Foundation of the Digestive System (FEAD), more than 60% of the population carries this bacterium inside them. However, most people never know it: Helicobacter pylori infection is one of the most common and usually persists throughout life.

The spiral shape and the mobile filaments -called flagella- that this microorganism has at one of its ends and give it mobility help it clings to the mucosa that lines the stomach, where it will grow. In addition, it produces ammonia, which helps protect it from the acidity of gastric juices.

The bacterium produces inflammation in the stomach, which can cause chronic gastritis in most infected people. It has also been shown that, on occasions, infection by this bacterium can lead to erosive gastritis and, eventually, to an ulcer. It is the leading cause of peptic ulcers and is also related to some cases of stomach cancer.

What routes of contagion of this bacterium exist?

In saliva, faeces and dental plaque, Helicobacter pylori can be spread between people by direct contact with saliva, vomit or faecal matter -especially when the carrier does not wash their hands well after each deposition -. It can also occur when someone touches a contaminated object, such as a towel, and then puts their hands in their mouth; however, its transmission mechanism is unknown.

The infection usually occurs in childhood, while it rarely occurs in adulthood. In developed countries, it usually takes place in the family environment, between parents and children or siblings, where there is contact in the form of a kiss and objects are frequently shared. It can also occur among people who live in nursing homes and other settings where close contact is expected.

In developing countries, conversely, it is more common for contagion to occur through food or water contaminated with faeces (faecal-oral route). In any case, the risk of contracting it is more significant for people who live in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions, without access to clean and drinkable water, and for those who live with a person who already has the infection. The prevalence of Helicobacter pylori infection is close to 80% in underdeveloped nations, according to the Spanish Foundation for the Digestive System (FEAD).

What symptoms and complications resulting from H. Pylori infection?

Although the infection does not usually heal on its own, and almost all people who suffer from it develop gastritis, we should not be unnecessarily alarmed: according to the FEAD, only 10% and 25% of people infected by this bacterium show symptoms. If these appear, the most common are usually:

  • Swelling, burning or pain in the abdomen after meals.
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight.
  • Belching, nausea and vomiting.

If the H. Pylori infection becomes complicated, it can lead to a couple of more serious pathologies:

  • The so-called erosive gastritis: consists of the wear or thinning of the mucosal layer that lines the stomach from the inside.
  • Peptic or gastroduodenal ulcer: Helicobacter pylori increases the production of acid and toxins in the stomach and alters its defences. This ulcer is a more or less deep sore in the mucosa that covers the stomach and can manifest itself with a feeling of early satiety when eating, problems drinking the usual amount of liquid, hunger or a sense of emptiness in the stomach between one and three hours after eating, heartburn, mild nausea, pain in the stomach or chest, and weight loss. If there is blood in the vomit or stool, it may be a sign that the ulcer has bled or perforated or obstructed the stomach. In this case, we must immediately request medical assistance.
  • Lastly, although it is much less frequent, Helicobacter pylori infection can develop certain types of gastric cancer. But, again, there is no need to be alarmist since the risk of suffering from this disease is shallow, even in those infected by this bacterium. However, on some occasions, taking into account the symptoms and other factors of the patient, the doctor will assess the need to perform some tests to rule it out.

How are H. pylori, an increasingly resistant bacterium, eliminated?

As we have mentioned before, the infection by this bacterium does not usually heal on its own, but it is possible to eradicate it. However, eliminating Helicobacter pylori is complicated because this bacterium shows increasing antibiotic resistance. In addition, these do not act as effectively in a highly acidic environment such as the stomach.

For this reason, the first treatment option that has been most widely used in our country combines two types of antibiotics and a drug that decreases the production of acid by the stomach, such as omeprazole (Proton Pump Inhibitor). However, for it to be effective, it is crucial to complete the treatment prescribed by the doctor, usually between 10 and 14 days, and the indicated doses. During this period, some side effects such as diarrhoea or a bad taste in the mouth may appear, but they disappear when the treatment is finished.

If the bacteria cannot be eliminated in this way, a second eradication treatment option should be chosen. On some occasions, the bacterium persists, so other therapeutic regimens must be evaluated. Fortunately, once it is verified that the infection has disappeared, it is sporadic for it to reappear, so check-ups or special prevention measures are unnecessary.

Tips to prevent H. pylori infection:

To prevent Helicobacter pylori infection, it is recommended to take a series of minimum precautions:

1. Wash your hands often.

Especially after going to the bathroom and before cooking or eating. Do it thoroughly, taking your time and using warm, soapy water. Dry yourself well when you’re done.

2. Take care of your food hygiene.

This means that you properly preserve, prepare and cook food. You should also keep the surfaces where you cook and store them clean and the utensils with which you prepare them.

3. Be careful with water.

Drink it only from clean and safe sources. And increase precautions when travelling to developing countries.

4. Take care of the health of your mouth.

Remember that Helicobacter pylori are also present in saliva and tooth enamel.

As this infection is closely related to peptic ulcers, you can also look at these keys to better cope with its symptoms.

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