Doctors can easily detect Helicobacter pylori, the bug responsible for most ulcers, with a simple breath test without resorting to endoscopy which, for many patients, is a distressing experience.
Over 1 per cent of the population of Great Britain undergoes some form of endoscopic screening every year, usually to detect ulcers and particularly if they already suffer from dyspepsia. The procedure can be rather upsetting, however, and so is sometimes done under a general anaesthetic.
Researchers at Glasgow's Western Infirmary compared the outcomes of patients who had been screened with either an endoscopic examination or a simple breath test. In all, they followed 708 patients, aged under 55, who had been randomly assigned to one or the other procedure.
Having found that both techniques similarly did not miss any cases of H. pylori infection, they now recommend that the breath test should be the preferred screening procedure (BMJ, 2002; 324: 999-1002).