A peptic ulcer is a round or oval sore in the lining of the stomach or the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). Peptic ulcers are usually caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a germ that causes infection, or from drugs that weaken the lining of the stomach or duodenum. The drugs most often associated with causing peptic ulcers are aspirin, other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and corticosteroids. However, not everyone taking these drugs will develop the condition. Those at greatest risk of developing peptic ulcers from drugs include people 60 and older, women, long-time NSAID users and people who have had previous ulcers.

Some hallmarks of the problem include a dull or burning pain in the stomach, but you may feel the pain anywhere between your belly button and breastbone; pain that starts between meals or during the night; pain that lasts for minutes to hours; weight loss; bloating; and feeling sick to your stomach.

Most ulcers can be cured without complications. But if left untreated, some peptic ulcers can lead to potentially life-threatening complications, including penetration, perforation, bleeding (hemorrhage), obstruction, and cancer. It's estimated that peptic ulcers cause as many as 6,500 deaths each year. Here are some dangerous complications of peptic ulcers:

1. Penetration. An ulcer can penetrate the wall of the stomach or duodenum and continue into adjacent organs such as the liver or pancreas. The ulcer penetration causes intense pain that may be felt in the back. If drugs aren't successful in remedying the problem, surgery may be necessary.

2. Perforation. Ulcers can go through the stomach wall creating an opening or perforation in the abdominal cavity, causing intense, steady pain that may also be felt in one or both shoulders. Left untreated, the person may go into shock, requiring emergency surgery and intravenous antibiotics.

3. Bleeding. This is a common complication of ulcers and may be exhibited by vomiting bright red blood and passing black or obviously bloody stools. Bleeding ulcers may be treated by using an endoscope, a flexible tube, to cauterize the bleeding ulcer, or with drugs, such as histamine-2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors.

4. Obstruction. Swelling of inflamed tissues around an ulcer can narrow the outlet from the stomach or narrow the duodenum, causing repeated vomiting, bloating and a lack of appetite. Drugs to treat the ulcer usually relieves the obstruction, however, severe obstruction may require endoscopy or surgery.

5. Cancer. People with peptic ulcers caused by H. pylori have a three to six times greater chance of developing stomach cancer eventually.

If you suspect you may be suffering from peptic ulcers, see your doctor, even if your symptoms are mild. Peptic ulcers can become more serious if they aren't treated. Contact your doctor right away if you experience:

  • A sudden sharp stomach pain that doesn't go away
  • Black or bloody stools
  • Bloody vomit or vomit that looks like coffee grounds