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12 Silent Signs of Gastritis

A lot of people think they have basic indigestion when what they really have is gastritis. Read on to see if you are one of the many who are struggling—often unknowingly—with this condition.

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What is gastritis?

Put simply, it's the inflammation of your stomach lining. Gastroenterologist Taruna Bhatia, MD, medical director of hepatology at CarePoint Health System, explains that if your stomach is burning or aching, you may have gastritis. The only way to diagnose the condition is with an endoscopy: A specialist snakes a tube down your digestive tract to your stomach to assess the situation. "Gastritis is a condition diagnosed based on biopsy of the lining of the stomach," Dr. Bhatia says. If you're having persistent issues with your stomach, you'll want to make an appointment with your gastroenterologist and get scoped. By the way, if you're experiencing pain on the left side of your abdomen, familiarize yourself with these health problems linked to that symptom.

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You often feel bloated

There are dozens of reasons why the stomach bloats, and most of the time it's completely normal. However, if you feel that it happens all the time or after most meals, you may want to explore causes with your doctor. Dr. Bhatia says that people come into her office frequently saying that they believe they have gastritis because they feel bloated. "Most patients use the term [gastritis] loosely for any stomach-related symptom," she says. While gastritis can cause bloating, there may be other underlying causes, such as the more common dyspepsia, which is basic indigestion. Check out 8 normal reasons your belly is bloated (and 4 times to worry).

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You burp a lot

People with gastritis tend to have an overgrowth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori in their guts. H. pylori infection—which, according to the Mayo Clinic, may be found in up to half the world's population—is one of the top causes of gastritis (along with excessive use of over-the-counter pain relievers—more on that below), and it can cause cancer if not treated, says Dr. Bhatia. When the stomach produces acid to break down food particles, it also secretes mucus to protect the stomach lining from damage. The bacteria can interfere with that mucous barrier, and that can lead to gastritis. "If it is due to the bacterial infection of the stomach, H. pylori can change the enzyme activity of the inner [stomach] lining and give symptoms of belching," says Dr. Bhatia.

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You feel full, even after a small meal

Another side effect of H. pylori is feeling uncomfortably full in the upper part of the stomach after eating even a small meal. The bacteria can lead to the buildup of gas, distending the stomach and leading to feelings of fullness. Be sure to read about 10 surprising foods that cause gas.

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You have vitamin B12 deficiency

You get this vitamin from meat, dairy, and eggs, and it's essential for keeping your body healthy and your energy levels high. An H. pylori infection can inhibit your body's ability to break down the protein needed to absorb this valuable vitamin from food. According to a 2013 case study from the National Center of Biotechnology Information, treating H. pylori infections boosted the levels of vitamin B12 in an individual who was previously deficient. This could ultimately decrease one's chances of developing dementia, which is also linked to vitamin B12 deficiency.

On the other hand, being low on B12 can actually cause a form of gastritis, Dr. Bhatia explains. Autoimmune gastritis is caused by B12 deficiency, and it causes the body to attack normal, healthy cells residing in the stomach lining. There are other factors that can cause your B12 levels to drop, so find out the 13 sneaky causes of B12 deficiency.

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You have inflammatory bowel disease

People who struggle with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis are at a higher risk of gastritis. H. pylori was detected in one-third of patients with Crohn's disease in one study published in Gastroenterology. Check out these 8 signs of ulcerative colitis.

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You are losing weight

When you feel full after nibbling on a small ration of food, it's inevitable that—with decreased appetite and calorie consumption—you begin to lose weight. Dr. Bhatia says, "Some patients are unable to eat due to the discomfort and, hence, lose weight." You can contract H. pylori quite easily by eating contaminated food. Dr. Bhatia says that once the bacteria has entered into your system, it inhabits your stomach lining and stays there. She says it's important to treat this infection right away, not only for immediate relief but, more importantly, to eliminate the chance of developing stomach cancer over time. Doctors can treat H. pylori with antibiotics, though it can take several rounds for the infection to clear. Find out if you have any of these 11 symptoms of Crohn's disease.

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You feel nauseated

Along with belching and bloating, H. pylori infection can also cause nausea. Dr. Bhatia says that the movement of bile, a digestive liquid produced by the liver, from the small intestines into the stomach may be the source of nausea or vomiting. (Bile reflux is, in fact, a type of gastritis.) However, says Dr. Bhatia, nausea can also be a symptom of indigestion, so it's important to take that into consideration before assuming you have an H. pylori infection. Learn which foods you should eat if you have acid reflux or other digestion problems.

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You drink alcohol or take certain drugs

H. pylori infection is not the only way people develop gastritis. There are a handful of other culprits—including heavy alcohol use or cocaine abuse. Alcohol, cocaine, and certain other drugs may inflame the stomach or destroy the mucosal wall—leaving the stomach vulnerable to infection and inflammation.

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You use a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs

Advil can ease pain in a hurry, but it can also be hard on your tummy. Used excessively, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Motrin and Advil (both of which contain ibuprofen) and Aleve (active ingredient: naproxen) can, ironically, inflame the stomach lining and lead to gastritis, warns Dr. Bhatia. A recent study revealed that NSAIDs can even cause peptic ulcers, which are open sores that form in both the internal part of the stomach lining and the upper portion of the small intestine. Know the 10 signs of an ulcer you should never ignore.

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You smoke cigarettes

You know smoking is bad, but did you know the CDC has found that more than 16 million Americans suffer from a smoking-related disease? According to Dr. Bhatia, smoking increases the likelihood of developing gastritis because of the multiple ways it damages your stomach lining. Smoking can reduce the production of the protective mucus in the stomach. A nicotine habit also seems to boost the production of pepsin, a stomach enzyme that breaks down protein—and that can also lead to stomach inflammation. "Smoking can also slow the blood supply to the stomach lining and reduce healing from inflammation or ulcers," says Dr. Bhatia.

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You have anemia

Dr. Bhatia says that people who are over 40 and have symptoms of indigestion and anemia, such as fatigue, should see a gastroenterologist to get an upper-gastrointestinal endoscopy done. The anemia may be caused by erosive gastritis, a rare type that causes ulcers to develop amid the stomach lining and can lead to chronic bleeding in the stomach (more on this next); the blood loss from stomach damage could be the source of your anemia. Check out other medical reasons you're tired all the time.

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You're experiencing intestinal bleeding

The key indicator of intestinal bleeding is blood in your stool—or vomit. Other, less obvious symptoms may include stomach cramps, shortness of breath, and weakness. Either way, the cause could be erosive gastritis. If you see evidence of blood, Dr. Bhatia recommends getting an endoscopy immediately. Now read about the 21 health secrets your gut could be trying to tell you.