Chronic gastritis refers to long-term or recurring episodes of stomach inflammation. The mucus lining that surrounds the inside of the stomach can become inflamed due to infection, injury, overuse of anti-inflammatory drugs, or a chronic health condition. Many cases of chronic gastritis go undiagnosed and untreated because they do not cause major symptoms. When symptoms are present, they typically include loss of appetite, dull aches, and bouts of nausea. Most cases can be relieved by focusing treatment on eliminating the underlying cause.
The stomach lining is a soft but tough tissue structure. It expands to provide room for food and prevents stomach acid from escaping. If the lining is damaged, however, acids can penetrate the walls and cause chronic irritation and inflammation. The most common cause of the condition is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which is found worldwide. H. pylori is normally harmless, but it can lead to major stomach infections in people with weakened immune systems.
Excessive use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen can also damage the stomach lining and increase the chances of developing chronic gastritis. Taking medications daily at or above the recommended dose can irritate the lining to the point that it breaks open and allows acid to escape. High stress levels, alcohol abuse, aging, and autoimmune disorders, such as pernicious anemia, can also increase the likelihood of gastritis complications.
Some people with chronic gastritis do not experience symptoms in the first stages of the disease, if at all. Common symptoms include a constant, dull pain in the upper abdomen and difficulties eating more than very small portions of food. Weight loss is common as a person's appetite dwindles. Other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and indigestion can arise as the disease progresses. Left untreated, it can lead to painful stomach ulcers and bloody vomiting.
A doctor can usually diagnose chronic gastritis by reviewing symptoms and checking blood and stool samples for the presence of H. pylori. If bacterium are not found, the doctor can choose to inspect the lining of the stomach with an endoscopic camera or x-ray to look for signs of major damage. A tissue biopsy may be performed to determine the severity of damage and rule out other problems, such as stomach cancer.
Treatment depends on the underlying problem. Bacterial infections usually clear up in two to four weeks with oral antibiotics. Autoimmune disorders are typically treated with prescription drugs. Patients are instructed to avoid overusing anti-inflammatory drugs, alcohol, and coffee to reduce the chances of further damage. In addition, practicing stress relief techniques, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy diet can help keep gastritis from returning.