Many people with ulcers have no symptoms at all. Some people with an ulcer have belly pain. This pain is often in the upper abdomen. Sometimes food makes the pain better, and sometimes it makes it worse. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, or feeling bloated or full. It is important to know that there are many causes of abdominal pain, so not all pain in the abdomen is an “ulcer”.
The most important symptoms that ulcers cause are related to bleeding.
Bleeding from an ulcer can be slow and go unnoticed or can cause life-threatening hemorrhage. Ulcers that bleed slowly might not produce the symptoms until the person becomes anemic. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, shortness of breath with exercise and pale skin color.
Bleeding that occurs more rapidly might show up as melena – jet black, very sticky stool (often compared to “roof tar”) – or even a large amount of dark red or maroon blood in the stool. People with bleeding ulcers may also vomit. This vomit may be red blood or may look like “coffee grounds”. Other symptoms might include “passing out” or feeling lightheaded. Symptoms of rapid bleeding represent a medical emergency. If this occurs, immediate medical attention is needed. People with these symptoms should dial 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
The two most important causes of ulcers are infection with Helicobacter pylori and a group of medications known as NSAIDs.