Harvard Health Letter

By the way, doctor: Does an H. pylori infection without symptoms need to be treated?

Q. I'm in my mid-80s and am infected with H. pylori, the "ulcer bacteria." I don't have any symptoms and have heard that half of everyone over age 60 tests positive for H. pylori and that many people never develop ulcers. Do I need to be treated?

A. Helicobacter pyloriH. pylori — is a species of bacteria that has coexisted with human beings since we first evolved in Africa. In the mid-1980s, two Australian doctors, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren, found H. pylori in many peptic ulcers, which occur in the stomach and the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. Peptic ulcers were very common at that time.

Before Marshall and Warren made their discovery, it was widely believed that peptic ulcers were caused by stomach acid, and that bacteria couldn't possibly live in such acid. So when the two researchers suggested that the bacteria might be causing peptic ulcers, they were ridiculed as crackpots. But they and others persevered, and today it's accepted that H. pylori causes not only many peptic ulcers but also many cases of stomach cancer. Marshall and Warren were rewarded for their efforts in 2005 with a Nobel Prize.

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