Tests for helicobacter pylori are used to see if you are infected with the bacterium that is the main cause of peptic ulcer disease. Testing may be done if you have symptoms that are typically caused by an ulcer. If your test is positive, you will be treated with a combination of antibiotics and a proton pump inhibitor – medication that reduces stomach acid. In some cases, more than one treatment course is required to clear the body of the bacterium.
Why get tested?
These tests are looking for evidence of an infection by Helicobacter pylori bacteria. This is now known to be the main cause of peptic ulcer disease although not all people who are infected go on to develop symptoms.
H. pylori lives in the lining of your stomach and in the first part of the small intestine. It is the most common infection in the world and about half of all Australians are estimated to have it.
In most people, it lives in the stomach without causing any symptoms or problems but for others it causes inflammation that can gradually lead to ulcers and other stomach irritations. This can take many years – most people who are diagnosed with gastric ulcers are over 60. If left untreated, there is a small risk of stomach cancer.
If your doctor suspects you have an H. Pylori infection or ulcer, they will decide which H. pylori test is best to use in your personal situation.
There are different ways to test for an H. pylori infection:
Urea Breath Test (UBT)
This is the test most often used to diagnose an H. pylori infection because it is highly accurate and non-invasive. It measures a substance called urease in your stomach. Urease is an enzyme made by the H. pylori bacteria that allows them to survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. The test requires you to swallow a small amount of radiolabelled urea (a mildly radioactive substance) then after a few minutes blow into a balloon.
The urea is broken down by the bacteria’s urease into carbon dioxide and ammonia. The carbon dioxide is detectable in your breath and can show if you have H. pylori in your stomach. The urea solution given for this test is considered safe and the amount of radioactivity is about 10 – 20 times less than that used in a chest X-ray.
Stool (faecal) test
This test measures antigens in a sample of your stool or faeces. Antigens are proteins on H. pylori bacteria that trigger your body’s immune response.
This test detects the antibodies in your blood that the immune system makes to fight off H. pylori. Antibodies take five to 10 weeks to develop after the infection first starts and they can stay in your blood long-term. However, the test cannot distinguish between a past or current infection and it cannot be used to monitor therapy.
Endoscopy or gastroscopy
This test involves putting a tube down your throat and into your stomach to take a biopsy, which is a small piece of tissue, from the stomach lining. The tissue samples are tested in the laboratory for H. pylori. This usually involves a pathologist investigating your samples under a microscope. Sometimes H. pylori bacteria are grown in a dish or tube containing nutrients. If H. pylori bacteria are present in the sample, they are grown until they can be seen under a microscope or in a liquid solution. A biopsy can also detect other causes of stomach pain. Sometimes a breath test can be used instead of a biopsy.
This is relatively new but is a more accurate and faster way to confirm H.Pylori infection. Through measurement of the DNA and RNA in the bacterium it can also identify particular strains or sub-strains and this information can be used to guide which antibiotics are more likely to be successful in your treatment.
Having the test
Breath test: You will be asked to drink a special liquid or tablet containing a harmless radioactive material. If H. pylori is present in your gastrointestinal tract, the material will be broken down into radio-labelled carbon dioxide gas. By testing the expelled air collected from your breath sample, the laboratory can detect if H.pylori is in your stomach or first part of your small intestine.
None is needed for the blood test. If you are on medication such as proton pump inhibitors, certain antacids, or antibiotics, you need to talk with your doctor about stopping these before the urea breath or stool test as they can interfere with the test’s ability to detect H. pylori. It is important to ask your doctor about how you should prepare.
Reading your test report
Your results will be presented along with those of your other tests on the same form. You will see separate columns or lines for each of these tests.
Questions to ask your doctor
The choice of tests your doctor makes will be based on your medical history and symptoms. It is important that you tell themeverything you think might help.
You play a central role in making sure your test results are accurate. Do everything you can to make sure the information you provide is correct and follow instructions closely.
Talk to your doctor about any medications you are taking. Find out if you need to fast or stop any particular foods or supplements. These may affect your results. Ask:
Pathology Tests Explained (PTEx) is a not-for profit group managed by a consortium of Australasian medical and scientific organisations.
With up-to-date, evidence-based information about pathology tests it is a leading trusted sources for consumers.
Information is prepared and reviewed by practising pathologists and scientists and is entirely free of any commercial influence.