Helicobacter Pylori in Children
What is H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori)?
H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori, pronounced Hel-ee-koh-BAK-ter Pie-LORE-ee) is a spiral-shaped germ (bacteria) that infects the stomach.
It can damage the tissue in your child’s stomach and the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). This can cause redness and swelling (inflammation). It may also cause painful sores called peptic ulcers in the upper digestive tract.
What causes an H. pylori infection?
Health experts don’t know for sure how H. pylori infection is spread. They believe the germs can be passed from person to person by mouth.
Your child may also come into contact with the bacteria if he or she:
- Eats food that was not cleaned or cooked in a safe way
- Drinks water that is infected with the bacteria
- Doesn’t wash his or her hands well after going to the bathroom
Most people are first exposed to the bacteria during childhood.
Who is at risk for an H. pylori infection?
Most people first get the bacteria when they are children. But adults can get it too.
Experts are not sure if H. pylori infection runs in families (hereditary). It is more common where people live in crowded or unclean conditions. It may affect up to 75% of children in developing countries. It occurs at a lower rate in the U.S.
What are the symptoms of an H. pylori infection?
Most people have the H. pylori bacteria for years without knowing it because they don’t have any symptoms. Experts don’t know why.
After being infected with H. pylori, your child may have an inflammation of the stomach lining. This is called gastritis. But most people never have symptoms or problems from the infection.
When symptoms do occur, they may include belly pain, which can:
- Be a dull, gnawing pain
- Happen 2 to 3 hours after a meal
- Come and go for a few days or weeks
- Occur in the middle of the night when your child’s stomach is empty
- Be eased by eating or taking an antacid medicine
Other symptoms may include:
- Loss of weight
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling or bloating
- Having an upset stomach or nausea
H. pylori symptoms may look like other health conditions. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is an H. pylori infection diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider will take a health history and do a physical exam. The provider may also order other tests, including:
- Blood tests. These tests check for infection-fighting cells called antibodies. If antibodies are found, your child has the H. pylori bacteria.
- Stool culture. This looks for any abnormal bacteria in your child’s digestive tract that may cause diarrhea and other problems. A small stool sample is collected and sent to a lab.
- Breath tests. These tests check if there is any carbon present after your child drinks a special fluid. If carbon is found, that means that H. pylori is present.
- EGD or upper endoscopy. This test looks at the lining of the food pipe (esophagus), the stomach, and the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). It uses a thin, lighted tube or endoscope. The tube has a camera at one end. The tube is put into your child’s mouth and throat. Then it goes down into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. Your child’s provider can see the inside of these organs. A small tissue sample or biopsy is taken if needed. The tissue sample can be checked for signs of infection or of H. pylori bacteria.
How is an H. pylori infection treated?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Your child’s treatment may include antibiotics to kill the bacteria.
Your child may also take medicines to stop stomach acid from being made. These include:
- H2-blockers. They reduce the amount of acid the stomach makes by blocking the hormone histamine. Histamine helps to make acid.
- Proton pump inhibitors. These help to prevent the stomach from making acid. They do this by stopping the stomach's acid pump from working.
- Stomach-lining protectors. They protect the stomach lining from acid. They also help kill bacteria.
What are the complications of an H. pylori infection?
A very bad ulcer can wear away your child’s stomach lining. It can also cause problems such as:
- Bleeding when a blood vessel is worn away
- A hole (perforation) in the stomach wall
- Blockage when the ulcer is in a spot that blocks food from leaving the stomach
What can I do to prevent H. pylori?
Health experts don’t know for sure how the H. pylori bacteria passes from person to person. But having good health habits or personal hygiene can help keep your child safe. These habits include making sure that your child:
- Washes his or her hands with soap and water. It is very important for your child to do this after using the bathroom and before eating.
- Eats food that has been cleaned and cooked safely
- Drinks water that is safe and clean
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?Call your child's healthcare provider if your child has regular belly (abdominal) pain.
Key points about H. pylori
- H. pylori is a spiral-shaped germ (bacteria). It attacks the stomach and the first part of the small intestine (duodenum).
- This causes inflammation. It can also cause open sores called peptic ulcers in the upper digestive tract.
- Most people with H. pylori won’t have any symptoms or get an ulcer. But it is a main cause of ulcers.
- It may be passed by eating food or drinking water that is not safe. It may also be spread from person to person by mouth.
- Having good personal health habits or hygiene can help protect your child.
Next stepsTips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.