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10 Signs of an Ulcer You Should Never Ignore

Pay attention to these ulcer symptoms and talk to your doctor if you’re concerned they may be a sign of something serious.

What is a stomach ulcer?

Peptic ulcers are painful sores that line the stomach—and they affect about 4.5 million people per year. Normally the stomach has a protective layer that keeps the acidic juices in the stomach from getting to sensitive tissue and causing an ulcer. However, some people are at risk for developing stomach ulcers, most often due to long-term use of NSAIDs, the class of pain reliever that includes ibuprofen or aspirin, or an infection with a type of bacteria called H. pylori. The good news is that treatment can help many ulcers to heal. Here are the signs of an ulcer you shouldn't ignore.

man sitting on the side of a bed holding his abdomeniStock/monkeybusinessimages

You have pain specifically in your upper abdomen

One of the most common ulcer symptoms is severe pain in the upper abdomen, according to Neil Sengupta, MD, a gastroenterology specialist at the University of Chicago, Illinois. Ulcers can develop anywhere in the upper digestive tract, says Dr. Sengupta, but we often think about those occurring in the stomach or small intestine, where we feel pain. This ulcer pain usually occurs when your stomach is empty and can come and go for as long as several months, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Find out what other types of stomach pains might mean.

woman over head feeling nausea stomach painLightField Studios/ Shutterstock

You feel nauseous

One of the other telltale ulcer symptoms is feeling nauseous, Dr. Sengupta says. Many patients report that having a little food in your stomach can help ulcer symptoms subside. (Here are some other home remedies for an upset stomach you can try.)

doctor explaining a diagnosis to a man in painiStock/monkeybusinessimages

You've had unexplained vomiting

From time to time, nausea brought on by ulcers may become so intense that it could actually cause you to vomit. If that happens, stay away from medications like ibuprofen and aspirin. According to Dr. Sengupta, these over-the-counter pain medications actually put you at a higher risk of developing ulcers—or make your current ulcers worse.

toilet paper hanging on roller in a tiled bathroomistock/rami_ba

You bleed when you use the bathroom

Blood coming from the gastrointestinal tract can signal a variety of underlying health issues. Still, Dr. Sengupta says when this bleeding is combined with upper abdominal pain, he’s “highly suspicious” that it's one of the signs of an ulcer. Many patients notice this blood either when vomiting, or when using the bathroom, as their stools may appear black. If you notice this blood, along with nausea and pain in the stomach or chest, Dr. Sengupta says doctors will often perform a blood test and an upper endoscopy—where they use a camera to look into the stomach itself—to check if an ulcer is the culprit. According to NKIDD, blood in your stool can also be due to hemorrhoids, or be a symptom of colitis or colon cancer, so it’s a good idea to get checked out by your doctor. (Don't miss these other signs of colon cancer you might be missing.)

elderly man pressing his hand against his chestiStock/nebari

You have chest pain

Some patients with ulcers describe chest pain, a term called "non-cardiac chest pain," which refers to pain in the area that's not caused by a heart attack or heart disease, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. The discomfort is commonly caused by a GI problem, though it can also stem from stress or anxiety.

woman in pain holding her abdomeniStock/Gawrav

You’re more bloated than usual

If you notice your stomach feeling particularly bloated, it may be more serious than a little bit of gas—it could be one of the signs of an ulcer. Of course, bloating can also be caused simply by eating something your body doesn’t agree with, but when combined with these other symptoms, it’s worth checking out. Find out how to tell if you should worry about your belly bloat.

elderly person's hand holding a fork over mealistock/Willowpix

Your appetite went MIA

Another less common, but possible, ulcer symptom is weight loss. You may notice your appetite is off, and stomach discomfort makes it hard to eat. This drop in food intake, combined with occasional vomiting, may lead to unexpected weight loss. Don't miss these other serious health conditions that cause unexpected weight loss.

Man in a restaurant eating a flatbread sandwichSG SHOT/Shutterstock

You're feeling weirdly hungry

You'd think that an ulcer would kill your appetite, but some people feel this burning or gnawing sensation in their stomach weirdly as hunger. The pain may briefly stop after you've had something to eat. Don't miss these other medical reasons you can't stop eating.

Beautiful young businesswoman having back pain while sitting at office desk.Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

You've had back pain

You might associate ulcers with the stomach and small intestine, but believe it or not, some people report that the pain travels into their upper or mid-back. If that happens, it can make your symptoms all the more confusing. (Find out what to do if you wake up with back pain.)

Pretty slender girl covers her mouth with her handsBorysevych.com/Shutterstock

You keep burping

Belching is a less common symptom of an ulcer, but your doctor might be suspicious of one if it's accompanied by the others on this list. Talk to your doctor if you've been burping more than usual; ulcer or not, it can be a disruptive symptom and your doctor will want to figure out the cause. Find out how to tell if your symptoms are one of the signs of ulcerative colitis.

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Medically reviewed by Russell H. Greenfield, MD, on December 16, 2019