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Helicobacter pylori

What Are Helicobacter pylori?

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) are a type of bacteria. These germs are a common cause of digestive illnesses, including:

  • gastritis: the irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining
  • peptic ulcers (often called stomach ulcers): sores in the lining of the stomach, small intestine, or esophagus
  • later in life, stomach cancer

Kids can get stomachaches for many reasons, like indigestion, viruses, stress and worry, and appendicitis. Most stomachaches are not caused by Helicobacter pylori (HEL-ih-ko-bak-tur pie-LOR-eye) bacteria.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of H. pylori Infections?

Many people who get an H. pylori infection don’t realize it. Often, these infections don’t cause symptoms.

When the bacteria do cause symptoms, they're usually either symptoms of gastritis or peptic ulcer disease.

In kids, symptoms of gastritis (ga-STRYE-tis) may include:

In older kids and adults, the most common symptom of peptic ulcers is a lasting or burning belly pain, usually in the area below the ribs and above the navel. This pain often gets worse on an empty stomach and gets better as soon as the person eats food, drinks milk, or takes antacid medicine.

Peptic ulcers that bleed can cause:

  • hematemesis (hee-muh-TEM-uh-sis): bloody vomit or vomit that looks like coffee grounds
  • melena (muh-LEE-nuh): stool (poop) that's black, bloody, or looks like tar

How Do People Get H. pylori Infections?

People can swallow H. pylori bacteria from contaminated food, water, or eating utensils. Infections are most common in crowded areas and those without clean water or good sewage systems. People also can pass the bacteria through their saliva (spit) and other body fluids.

How Are H. pylori Infections Diagnosed?

The problems that H. pylori infections cause can happen in many illnesses. To find out if someone has an H. pylori infection, doctors can do different types of tests.

Doctors can:

  • Look at the stomach lining. The patient is sedated before this procedure. Then, the doctor inserts an endoscope — a small, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end — down the throat and into the stomach and duodenum (first part of the small intestine). The doctor might take samples of the lining (a biopsy) to check for signs of infection and H. pylori bacteria.
  • Do blood tests to look for H. pylori antibodies. Antibodies are proteins the immune system makes to get rid of a germ. Usually, they stay in our bodies in case we have to fight the same germ again. A positive test may show a past exposure to H. pylori, but not an active infection.
  • Do breath tests, which can spot carbon broken down by H. pylori after the patient drinks a solution. Breath tests take time, don’t show how severe an infection is, and can be hard to do in young children.
  • Do stool tests, which can find H. pylori proteins in the stool (poop). As with breath testing, stool tests can’t show how severe the infection is.

How Are H. pylori Infections Treated?

Doctors use antibiotics to treat H. pylori infections. A single antibiotic may not kill the bacteria, so doctors often prescribe a combination of antibiotics. To ease problems from stomach acids, doctors usually also give antacids or acid-suppressing drugs.

Antibiotic treatment cures many cases of gastritis and peptic ulcer disease caused by H. pylori, especially ulcers in the duodenum.

A child who has symptoms of bleeding from the stomach or small intestine will be treated in a hospital.

How Can Parents Help?

H. pylori infection can be cured with antibiotics. So the most important thing parents can do is to give their child the antibiotic medicine as directed for as long as the doctor prescribed.

To help soothe belly pain, follow a regular meal schedule. Plan meals so that your child's stomach isn’t empty for long periods. Eating 5 or 6 smaller meals each day may be best, and your child should take some time to rest after each meal.

Don’t give your child aspirin, aspirin-containing medicines, ibuprofen, or anti-inflammatory drugs. These may irritate the stomach or cause stomach bleeding.

Can H. pylori Infections Be Prevented?

There's no vaccine against H. pylori. But taking these steps can protect your family from many illnesses and help lower their risk of an H. pylori infection:

  • Wash hands well and often, especially after using the bathroom and before making or eating food.
  • Avoid food if you’re not sure that it was prepared safely.
  • Drink water from a safe source.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor right away if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • severe belly pain
  • vomit that's bloody or looks like coffee grounds
  • poop that's bloody, black, or looks like tar
  • lasting gnawing or burning pain in the area below the ribs that gets better after eating, drinking milk, or taking antacids
Reviewed by: Jolanda M. Denham, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021