Skip to main content
Select Source:




Helicobacteriosis refers to infection of the gastrointestinal tract with the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). While there are other rarer strains of Helicobacter species that can infect humans, only H. pylori has been convincingly shown to be a cause of disease in humans. The organism was first documented to cause injury to the stomach in 1983, by two researchers in Australia, who ingested the organism to prove their theory. Since then, H. pylori has been shown to be the main cause of ulcer disease, and has revolutionized the treatment of peptic ulcer disease. It also is believed to be linked to various cancers of the stomach.


H. pylori is a gram-negative, spiral-shaped organism, that contains flagella (tail-like structures) and other properties. In addition to flagella, which help the organism to move around in the liquid mucous layer of the stomach, H. pylori also produces an enzyme called urease, that protects it from gastric acid present in the stomach. As the production of this enzyme is relatively unusual, new diagnostic tests have enabled rapid identification of the bacteria.

H. pylori also produces two other chemicals: a cytotoxin called vacA, and a protein known as cagA. Patients with ulcer disease are more likely to produce the cytotoxin (vacA). The cagA protein not only occurs frequently in ulcer disease but also in cancer. It is still not known how these substances enable H. pylori to cause disease.

Causes and symptoms

Infection with H. pylori is largely dependent on two factors; age and income status. The bacteria is acquired mainly in childhood, especially in areas of poor hygiene or overcrowding. H. pylori is two to three times more prevalent in developing, non-industrialized countries. In the United States for example, the organism is believed to be present in about one third of the population.

The exact way in which H. pylori gets passed from one individual to another is uncertain, but person to person transmission is most likely. In most cases, children are felt to be the source of spread. Reinfection of those who have been cured has been documented, especially in areas of overcrowding.

The bacteria is well adapted to survival within the stomach. Not only does it survive there for years, but once infection begins, a form of chronic inflammation (chronic gastritis ) always develops. In most individuals, initial infection causes little or no symptoms; however, some individuals such as the original researchers who ingested the bacteria, wind up with abdominal pain and nausea.

In about 15% of infected persons, ulcer disease develops either in the stomach or duodenum. Why some develop ulcer disease and others do not remains unclear. Ulcer symptoms are characterized by upper abdominal pain that is typically of a burning or "gnawing" type, and usually is rapidly relieved by antacids or food.

Acid secretion increases in most patients with duodenal ulcers. This increase returns to normal once H. pylori is eliminated. It is now known that elimination of the bacteria will substantially decrease the risk of recurrent bouts of ulcer disease in the vast majority of patients. In fact, a 2003 report showed that by eradicating H. pylori, ulcer bleeding rarely recurs.

In the last decade it has been shown that H. pylori is not only the prime cause of ulcer disease of the stomach and duodenum, but is also strongly associated with various tumors of the stomach. Bacterial infection is nine times more common in patients with cancer of the stomach, and seven times more common in those with lymphoma of the stomach (tumor of the lymphatic tissue), called a MALT tumor. It is believed that the prolonged inflammation leads to changes in cell growth and tumors. Eliminating H. pylori can lead to regression of some tumors.

In addition to the above damage caused by H. pylori, some individuals lose normal gastric function, such as the ability to absorb vitamin B12.


There are basically two types of tests to identify infection: one group is "invasive" in that it involves the use of an endoscopy to obtain biopsy specimens for evaluation, while the other "noninvasive" methods depend on blood or breath samples. Invasive tests can be less accurate because of technical limitations: the biopsy may miss the area where the bacteria hides.

Invasive studies make use of tissue obtained by endoscopic biopsy to identify the organism. The bacteria can be searched for in pieces of biopsy tissue or grown (cultured) from the specimen. However, H. pylori is not easy to culture. Another method uses the bacteria's production of the enzyme urease. Biopsy specimens are placed on a card that changes color if urease is present. Results often are available within a few minutes, but can take up to 24 hours.

Noninvasive tests are of two types: blood tests and breath test. Blood tests measure antibodies to make a diagnosis accurately within minutes. This can be done immediately in the doctor's office. In addition, antibody levels can be measured several months after treatment, to see if H. pylori has been eradicated.

The breath test uses radioactive or non-radioactive forms of a compound called urea, which the patient drinks. The method that uses a radioactive form urea is easier to perform, as the equipment is commonly available in x-ray departments. Radiation exposure is less than that of a chest x ray. The test that uses non-radioactive urea is safer for children. A 2003 study in Brazil showed that the urea breath test and H. pylori stool antigen test also worked well to detect the bacteria in children. The breath test is the best way to be sure of elimination of H. pylori. The test can be used within 30 days after treatment. This is an advantage over following antibody levels that take six months or longer to diminish.


H. pylori peptic ulcers are treated with drugs to kill the bacteria, drugs to reduce stomach acid, and drugs to protect the lining of the stomach. The antibiotics most commonly used to kill the bacteria are: amoxicillin, clarithromycin, metronidazole, and tetracycline. Drugs used to reduce stomach acid may be histamine blockers or proton pump inhibitors. The most commonly used histamine blockers are: cimetidine, famotidine, nizatidine, and ranitidine. The most commonly used proton pump inhibitors are: lansoprazole and omeprazole. The drug bismuth subsalicylate (a component of Pepto-Bismol) is used to protect the stomach lining.

The most common drug treatment is a two-week course of treatment called triple therapy. This treatment regimen involves taking two antibiotics to kill the bacteria and either an acid reducer or a stomach-lining shield. This therapy has been shown to kill the bacteria, reduce ulcer symptoms, and prevent ulcer recurrence in over 90% of patients.

The main drawback of triple therapy is that some patients find it difficult to follow because it often requires taking as many as 20 pills a day. The antibiotics also may cause unpleasant side effects that may make certain patients less likely to follow the treatment protocol. These side effects include: dark stools, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, a metallic taste in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, and yeast infections in women.


Antibiotic A medication that is designed to kill or weaken bacteria.

Endoscope, Endoscopy An Endoscope as used in the field of Gastroenterology is a thin flexible tube that uses a lens or miniature camera to view various areas of the gastrointestinal tract. When the procedure is performed to examine certain organs such as the bile ducts or pancreas, the organs are not viewed directly, but rather indirectly through the injection of x ray. The performance of an exam using an endoscope is referred by the general term endoscopy. Diagnosis through biopsies or other means and therapeutic procedures can be done with these instruments.

Gram-negative Refers to the property of many bacteria in which they do not take or color with Gram's stain, a method which is used to identify bacteria. Gram-positive bacteria that take up the stain turn purple, while Gram-negative bacteria which do not take up the stain turn red.


The elimination of H. pylori and cure of ulcer disease is now possible in more than 90% of those infected. The finding that most ulcers are due to an infectious agent has brought a dramatic change in treatment and outlook for those suffering from the disease. Some patients will wind up with repeated infection, but this is most common in overcrowded areas.


Attempts to develop a vaccine to protect against infection may be worthwhile in areas where the H. pylori infection rate and occurrence of cancer of the stomach is high. Research has shown such a vaccine would likely be safe in humans, but a vaccine has yet to be fully identified and developed as of mid-2003.



"Urea Breath, Stool Antigen Tests Work Well to Detect H. Pylori in Children." Health & Medicine Week September 22, 2003: 315.

"Vaccination Against H. Pylori Is an Achievable Goal." Drug Week July 18, 2003: 153.

Worcester, Sharon. "Eradicating H. Pylori May Prevent Bleeding Ulcers: No [Histamine. Sub2] Blockers Needed." Internal Medicine News September 15, 2003: 33.


"H. Pylori and Peptic Ulcer." National Institutes of Health.

"Management Strategies for Helicobacter pylori Seropositive Patients with Dyspepsia."

"Moving closer to an ulcer vaccine."

"Treating Stomach Ulcers and H. pylori Infection."

"What Is Helicobacter pylori Infection?" Centers for Disease Control.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Helicobacteriosis." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Helicobacteriosis." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . (December 11, 2017).

"Helicobacteriosis." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from



Helicobacteriosis is an infection of the gastrointestinal tract that is caused by the Gram-negative, spiral-shaped bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Ulcers on the lining of the stomach and upper intestinal tract characterize the malady. The ulceration may be a prelude to the development of cancer of the stomach.

Helicobacteriosis is established following the colonization of the stomach by Helicobacter pylori. How the bacteria are transmitted to a person is still unclear. The prevalence of the infection in overcrowded environments, especially where children are present, indicate that person-to-person transmission is most likely, and that personal hygiene plays a role in transmission. Following transmission, the bacterium is able to persist in the extremely acidic environment of the stomach by burrowing under the mucous overlay of the stomach epithelial cells, and because the bacteria produce an enzyme called urease. The enzyme is able to degrade the gastric acid in the stomach.

Helicobacteriosis invariably becomes chronic. Then, the infection can also be referred to as chronic gastritis. The infection can become chronic because initially the infection produces little or no symptoms. Thus, the immune system is not alerted to response to the infection, which provides an opportunity for the bacterial population to become more tenaciously established.

In about 15% of those who become infected, ulcers develop in the stomach or in a region of the upper intestine called the duodenum. The resulting burning feeling caused by increased secretion of acid is relieved by over-the-counter antacids, which can further dissuade people from seeking a physician's care for the malady. If the infection is diagnosed and the bacteria eliminated by antibiotic therapy, the elevated production of acid stops. But, in the absence of treatment, the painful ulcers will recur. Why only fifteen per cent of those who have infections develop ulcers while the other 85% of infected individuals do not is not clear.

Moreover, the molecular basis for the establishment of the ulcers is also still not clear. There has been some indication of toxin involvement. Helicobacter pylori produces a toxin called VacA and a protein called CagA.

More ominously, epidemiologic evidence strongly indicates that Helicobacter pylori stomach infections are associated with the development of various types of stomach cancers. For examples, the bacterial infection is nine times more common in those patients who are diagnosed with cancer of the stomach, and seven times more common in those people who have a tumor of the lymphatic tissue. Studies have demonstrated that even in these advanced cases, the elimination of Helicobacter pylori can produce a shrinking of the tumors.

Helicobacteriosis can be detected in three ways. The first way is by obtaining a sample of stomach tissue. Culturing of the stomach contents on growth media that selects for the growth of Helicobacter pylori over other bacteria is used to isolate the organism. If the region of the stomach where tissue is obtained is free from bacteria, then an infection can be missed.

A second way of detecting the presence of the bacteria is by a breath test. Breathing on a specially prepared support can detect the presence of the urease enzyme that is produced by Helicobacter pylori. Since this enzyme is not commonly produced, the detection of the enzyme is a strong indication of the presence of living bacteria. However, in the absence of the actual isolation of the bacteria, the breath test cannot be absolutely diagnostic.

Finally, antibodies produced in response to a Helicobacter pylori infection can be detected by a blood test.

Once detected, the bacterial infection does respond to antibiotic therapy. Elimination of the infection relieves the symptoms of helicobacteriosis in 80% of those people who are infected.

The discovery that helicobacteriosis has a bacterial origin and the relief of the symptoms upon bacterial eradication has reinforced the validity of a theory that proposes that many chronic and autoimmune diseases, such as certain types of heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis, are caused by an infection by bacteria or other microbe.

See also Bacteria and bacterial infection; Microbial flora of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Helicobacteriosis." World of Microbiology and Immunology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Helicobacteriosis." World of Microbiology and Immunology. . (December 11, 2017).

"Helicobacteriosis." World of Microbiology and Immunology. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from