Different tests for H. pylori infection

If you have a stomach ulcer or something else caused by an H. pylori infection, your doctor will probably use one of the tests described in this article to figure out what's wrong.

Laboratory technicians viewing a blood via microscope to detect H Pylori

Key takeaways:

  • H. pylori is the culprit organism that causes H. pylori infection.
  • Tests for diagnosing H. pylori infection include stool tests, blood tests, urea breath tests, and scope tests.
  • H. pylori is associated with medical conditions like stomach ulcers, gastritis, and stomach cancer.

Helicobacter pylori, also called H. pylori, is a bacteria that commonly infects the digestive tract. It is one of the primary causes of duodenal, esophageal, and stomach ulcers.

H. pylori infections can thrive in the stomach for a long time before causing symptoms. Many people with H. pylori infection are asymptomatic for a long time.

When H pylori infect the stomach, it decreases the mucus protecting the stomach wall, leading to an ulcer. Anything that affects the stomach mucosa can leave it exposed to different infections.

There are different tests available for diagnosing H. pylori infection. After making a diagnosis, your doctor will tell you how to treat it based on the condition it caused, the symptoms, and how bad the symptoms are.

In this article, we will discuss the different tests that can be carried out to detect H pylori infection, treatments, and complications of H pylori.

Tests for diagnosing H. pylori infection

To detect the presence of H. pylori in the body, there are different tests your healthcare provider can recommend. Your healthcare provider will determine the particular test that will be used.

Factors to consider when choosing an H. pylori test include the clinical context, the cost of the test, sensitivities (how it will affect you), and specificities (why it is being done). The availability of the test method should also be considered. For instance, the urea breath test is not readily available in Nigeria. It is uncommon and almost never used in Nigeria.

Tests for detecting H. pylori infection include:

Stool tests for H. pylori

Stool tests are one of the most common tests for detecting H. pylori infection. There are two types of stool tests:

  • Stool antigen test

There are antigens (proteins) that are associated with H. pylori infection. To identify these proteins, a stool antigen test is performed, and the presence of the proteins indicates the presence of H pylori.

The stool antigen tests are considered less expensive than other tests, like urea breath tests. This is because the stool antigen test does not require expensive equipment or chemicals.

The test is mostly used to detect H. pylori in children and those who have had gastric surgery. Just like the name implies, this test will require that you bring a sample of your stool for the test. You may also be asked to avoid certain medications, like antacids.

  • Stool PCR test

Stool polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a lab test that detects H. pylori in the stool. It is more expensive than the stool antigen test and may not be available in all medical centers.

The test can also be carried out after the treatment of H. pylori infections has commenced. Sometimes, antibiotics used in treating H pylori may not work properly due to resistance. This test can be used to identify mutant H. pylori species resistant to antibiotics.

Urea breath test

The urea breath test is another test that can be used to detect H. pylori infection. The urea breath test can be done for children over 6 years old and adults.

H. pylori bacteria produce urease enzymes. Urease is an enzyme that breaks down urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide.

The urea breath test is done in two stages. When you go for a urea breath test, you will be asked to exhale into a balloon-like bag. Your doctor will collect the carbon dioxide you exhale and measure it.

Then you will be given a solution that contains urea to drink. After about fifteen minutes of drinking the solution, you will exhale into another bag, and the carbon dioxide will be measured too. Another alternative to the urea solution is a tagged urea capsule. The idea is for you to ingest urea.

Your doctor will then compare the amounts of carbon dioxide in the first and second samples. If the carbon dioxide level in the second sample is higher, H. pylori is present. This is because H. pylori breaks down urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia.

Blood test

Blood tests are used to check for H. pylori antibodies in the blood. When your immune system detects harmful substances like bacteria, it releases proteins called antibodies to attack the foreign substance. Your doctor can order a blood test to check if your body has produced a lot of antibodies to H. pylori. If it did, it means you have an H. pylori infection.

Scope test

A scope test is also known as an upper endoscopy exam. It can be done to investigate symptoms of digestive health conditions like stomach ulcers resulting from H. pylori bacteria.

The scope test is invasive, but it can be used to find out about other digestive problems, which is a plus.

During a scope test, your doctor will give you a medication that will help you relax. Then an endoscope (a long, flexible tube with a small camera) will be passed down your throat and esophagus, into your stomach, and to the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum. From there, your doctor will take a tissue sample that will be tested for H. pylori infection.

With the endoscope, your doctor can detect problems in the digestive tract.

What does Helicobacter pylori cause?

H. pylori bacteria is linked to digestive system diseases such as:

  • Peptic Ulcers

H. pylori bacteria can cause open sores (ulcers) in the stomach. This is because H. pylori causes damage to the lining of the stomach and small intestine, which serves as a protective layer. When this happens, it leads to an ulcer. This is why H. pylori bacterial infection is considered one of the primary causes of stomach ulcers.

  • Stomach cancer

People often mistake the symptoms of stomach cancer and stomach ulcer because they have similar symptoms and causes, but they are two different conditions. Stomach cancer occurs when cells in the stomach start to grow rapidly and abnormally, with the tendency to spread to other parts of the body. H. pylori has been indicated as a risk factor for stomach cancer.

  • Inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis)

When H. pylori bacteria infect the stomach, it can cause irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining. This inflammation of the stomach is known as gastritis. People believe skipping meals causes gastritis. But that is a misconception. Skipping meals doesn't cause gastritis or stomach ulcers. Rather, H. pylori infection can cause these conditions.

How to treat H. Pylori infection

Different medications can be used for the treatment of H. pylori infection, including:

  • Antibiotics

Healthcare providers often use combination therapy to treat H. pylori infections. This is when two or more medications are used together. The most common antibiotics used include clarithromycin, amoxicillin, metronidazole, and tetracycline. Your healthcare provider will determine the most effective combination therapy for you.

  • Proton pump inhibitor

Proton pump inhibitors are also used for the treatment of H. pylori infection. This class of medication helps with ulcer healing. The most common proton pump inhibitors used are omeprazole (Prilosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), pantoprazole (Protonix), rabeprazole (Aciphex), or esomeprazole (Nexium).

Proton pump inhibitors are usually combined with antibiotics for more effectiveness.

  • Bismuth subsalicylate

Bismuth subsalicylate, like Pepto-Bismol, protects the stomach lining. They can be used alongside proton pump inhibitors and antibiotics.

Wrap up

Good hygiene can help you avoid an H. pylori infection. Keep in mind that not everyone infected shows symptoms. For some people, it takes years before they start to show symptoms, and at such a point, the bacteria may have caused some damage to their internal organs.

The good news is that H. pylori infection is easily diagnosed because various tests are available to detect its presence in the body. Your doctor will advise you on which tests to take. You can speak with them about the cost of the test, its availability, and laboratory centers where you can carry it out (if the hospital you are using doesn't conduct the test).

Read about the H. pylori urea breath test, how it is carried out, and its cost.