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Barrett's Esophagus

What is Barrett's esophagus?

Barrett's esophagus is when the normal cells that line your food pipe (esophagus) turn into cells not usually found in your esophagus. The new cells take over because the lining of the esophagus has been damaged. The new, abnormal cells are called specialized columnar cells.

It is very rare that someone with this disease will get cancer of the esophagus. But having Barrett's esophagus may raise your risk of having esophageal cancer.

What causes Barrett's esophagus?

You may get Barrett's esophagus if you have frequent heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, also called acid reflux disease) that lasts for many years. You may also get it if you have swelling of the esophagus (esophagitis). These health problems hurt the lining of your esophagus. This can cause the abnormal cells to take over.

If you have long-term (chronic) heartburn, you are at risk for Barrett's esophagus. You should talk with your healthcare provider.

Who is at risk for Barrett’s esophagus?

You are at greater risk of getting Barrett’s esophagus if you are:

  • Over 50 years old
  • Male
  • White
  • Obese

What are the symptoms of Barrett's esophagus?

Each person’s symptoms may vary. Some people with Barrett's esophagus have no symptoms. Others have symptoms caused by GERD including:

  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation
  • Trouble swallowing
In some cases you may not have any symptoms. Or the signs of Barrett's esophagus may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider to be sure.

How is Barrett's esophagus diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam. He or she will also do a test called an endoscopy. A long, thin tube (endoscope) is put in your mouth and gently pushed down into your esophagus.

The endoscope has a small camera and tools. Your healthcare provider uses the camera to see the lining of your esophagus. He or she will use the tools to remove a small tissue sample (a biopsy). This tissue sample will be sent to a lab. It will be checked to see if your normal cells have been taken over by abnormal cells.

If you are having trouble swallowing, your healthcare provider may also do an upper GI (gastrointestinal) barium study. This test may show if you have a narrowing (stricture) of the esophagus. This narrowing happens when the damaged lining of the esophagus gets thick and hard.

How is Barrett’s esophagus treated?

Your healthcare provider will suggest a care plan for you based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and past health
  • How serious your case is
  • How well you handle certain medicines, treatments, or therapies
  • If your condition is expected to get worse
  • What you would like to do

Treatment for Barrett's esophagus centers on acid blockers that will also treat GERD symptoms.

Barrett's esophagus is usually permanent, but in some people, it may go away.

Your healthcare provider will make a care plan for you. The plan will try to stop any more damage by keeping acid reflux out of your stomach. Your care plan may include:

  • Medicine. You may be given medicine to reduce how much acid is made in your stomach.
  • Surgery. You may need a type of surgery called fundoplication. This will take out damaged tissue or part of the esophagus. The part of the esophagus that is left is usually joined to the stomach.
  • Dilation treatment. You may need this if you have a narrowing of the esophagus. During dilation, a tool gently stretches (dilates) the narrowed part of the esophagus. It also widens the opening of the esophagus.

Can Barrett’s esophagus be prevented?

You can help lower your risk of getting Barrett’s esophagus by:

  • Eating lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Losing weight and staying at a healthy weight

Living with Barrett’s esophagus

If you have Barrett’s esophagus, your healthcare provider will give you follow-up instructions. You may not need surgery or another treatment right away. But you should have GI studies done from time to time. These will help to see if your case has gotten worse and if you need surgery or another treatment.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of your early symptoms come back or get worse after you’ve had medicine, surgery, or other treatments.

Key points

  • Barrett's esophagus is when the normal cells that line your food pipe (esophagus) turn into cells not usually found in your esophagus.
  • This happens because the lining of your esophagus has been damaged.
  • You may get this if you have long-term gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
  • You are at greater risk if you are white, male, obese, and over 50 years old.
  • Having Barrett's esophagus may raise your risk of getting esophageal cancer.
  • There is no cure for Barrett's esophagus.
  • Your care plan will try to stop any more damage by keeping acid reflux out of your stomach.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Brown, Kim, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Jenifer, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/15/2016
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