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Do all hospitalized patients need stress ulcer prophylaxis?

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No. Based on current evidence and guidelines, routine acid-suppressive therapy to prevent stress ulcers has no benefit in hospitalized patients outside the critical-care setting. Only critically ill patients who meet specific criteria, as described in the guidelines of the American Society of Health System Pharmacists, should receive acid-suppressive therapy.

Unfortunately, routine stress ulcer prophylaxis is common in US hospitals, unnecessarily putting patients at risk of complications and adding costs.


Stress ulcers—ulcerations of the upper part of the gastrointestinal (GI) mucosa in the setting of acute disease—usually involve the fundus and body of the stomach. The stomach is lined with a glycoprotein mucous layer rich in bicarbonates, forming a physiologic barrier to protect the gastric wall from acid insult by neutralizing hydrogen ions. Disruption of this protective layer can occur in critically ill patients (eg, those with shock or sepsis) through overproduction of uremic toxins, increased reflux of bile salts, compromised blood flow, and increased stomach acidity through gastrin stimulation of parietal cells.

More than 75% of patients with major burns or cranial trauma develop endoscopic mucosal abnormalities within 72 hours of injury.1 In critically ill patients, the risk of ulcer-related overt bleeding is estimated to be 5% to 25%. Furthermore, 1% to 5% of stress ulcers can be deep enough to erode into the submucosa, causing clinically significant GI bleeding, defined as bleeding complicated by hemodynamic compromise or a drop in hemoglobin that requires a blood transfusion.2 In contrast, in inpatients who are not critically ill, the risk of overt bleeding from stress ulcers is less than 1%.3


A multicenter prospective cohort study of 2,252 intensive care patients2 reported two main risk factors for significant bleeding caused by stress ulcers: mechanical ventilation for more than 48 hours and coagulopathy, defined as a platelet count below 50 × 109/L, an international normalized ratio greater than 1.5, or a partial thromboplastin time more than twice the control value.4 In hemodynamically stable patients receiving anticoagulation in a general medical or surgical ward, the risk of GI bleeding was low, and acid suppression failed to lower the rate of stress ulcer occurrence.3

Other risk factors include severe sepsis, shock, liver failure, kidney failure, burns over 35% of the total body surface, organ transplantation, cranial trauma, spinal cord trauma, history of peptic ulcer disease, and history of upper GI bleeding.3,5,6 Steroid therapy is not considered a risk factor for stress ulcers unless it is used in the presence of another risk factor such as use of aspirin or nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).2


Prophylaxis with a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) is indicated in specific conditions—ie, peptic ulcer disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, chronic NSAID therapy, and Zollinger-Ellison syndrome—and to eradicate Helicobacter pylori infection.7 But in the United States, stress ulcer prophylaxis is overused in general-care floors despite the lack of supporting evidence.

The American Society of Health System Pharmacists guidelines recommend it in the intensive care unit for patients with any of the following: coagulopathy, prolonged mechanical ventilation (more than 48 hours), GI ulcer or bleeding within the past year, sepsis, a stay longer than 1 week in the intensive care unit, occult GI bleeding for 6 or more days, and steroid therapy with more than 250 mg of hydrocortisone daily.8 Hemodynamically stable patients admitted to general-care floors should not receive stress ulcer prophylaxis, as it only negligibly decreases the rate of GI bleeding, from 0.33% to 0.22%.9

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