What Is H. Pylori? 4 Things To Know About This Common Parasite

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We share our bodies with many other organisms, and one that many people are carrying, often without realizing it, is a bacteria called H. pylori or Helicobacter pylori. This parasite lives in the stomach and can cause a number of digestive issues and possibly more. However, many people also carry it without experiencing symptoms.

H. pylori is spiral-shaped and typically lives in the stomach lining, Shajan Peter, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tells Bustle. Its symptoms include "indigestion such as burning pain or discomfort (usually in the upper abdomen), burping or bloating, nausea, vomiting, or feeling full after eating a small amount of food," he says.

Since the role of H. pylori is complex, it's sometimes unclear whether it's benign, causing problems, or actually helping. "Understanding when H. pylori is acting beneficially and when it is acting detrimentally is a leading area of research," Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Bustle. "H. pylori — like all components of the microbiome — has myriad different roles that are difficult to tease apart. However, its protective role against some diseases is well established on one hand and its detrimental role, on the other, has also been established."

Here are some things to know if you think you could have H. pylori, according to experts.

1. At Least Half Of Americans Will Get It

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In the developing world, almost everyone gets H. pylori during childhood, though it tapers off as people get older, Dr. Adalja says. For whatever reason — potentially due to better hygiene — it's the opposite in the U.S., with H. pylori less common in childhood and about half of people carrying it at age 60. So, the chances of getting it at some point in your life are pretty high.

2. It's Not Necessarily A Problem

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"Most people with Helicobacter pylori infection have no symptoms and have no issues from it," Dr. Adalja says. In fact, small amounts of H. pylori can actually be beneficial for digestion by reducing risk for reflux, some types of esophageal cancer, and asthma.

3. But It Can Be

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H Pylori can cause symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, burping, and in severe cases, stomach ulcers or stomach cancer, Dr. Adalja says. If you're experiencing these kinds of symptoms, you can get evaluated for H. pylori via a stool test, colonoscopy, breath test, or blood test. Typically, it'll be treated with antibiotics and bismuth.

It's possible that people who develop ulcers or gastritis have a period where they're carrying H. pylori and are asymptomatic, Kelly Cawcutt, MD, an infectious diseases physician at University of Nebraska Medical Center, tells Bustle. Therefore, there may be a benefit to treating it in asymptomatic people, but there isn't enough research to say for sure whether this is the case. So, you don't need to get checked for H. pylori if you're not having symptoms.

4. It Might Affect The Brain

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Research is beginning to come out on the gut-brain axis — the connection between digestive health and mental health. Though it's not conclusive yet, some research points toward a relationship between H. pylori and anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment.

"If digestive issues are associated with increased mental health symptoms, then treating any underlying cause, including H. pylori, could anecdotally seem to result in improvement," Dr. Cawcutt says. But since lots of things can cause anxiety, depression, and brain fog, those symptoms alone aren't usually reason enough to check for H. pylori.

If you have symptoms associated with H. pylori, ask your doctor about testing. If not, don't sweat it; even if it's taken up residence in your stomach, it won't necessarily cause problems as long as your gut is healthy.