Barrett’s Esophagus

What is Barrett’s Esophagus?

Heartburn and acid reflux can cause severe complications to health over time if left untreated. Chronic heartburn and acid reflux can lead to GERD or gastroesophagal reflux disease. This in turn can lead to Barrett’s esophagus which eventually could lead to cancer of the esophagus.

Instead of the normal cells lining the esophagus, cells from the small intestine try to take up duty because the esophagus cells have been too damaged by GERD. The cause of Barrett’s esophagus is unknown. Sadly, a very small percentage of people develop Barrett’s esophagus without ever first having bad heartburn. People most likely to develop Barrett’s esophagus are overweight white men who smoke.

What are the Symptoms of Barrett’s Esophagus?

Common symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus include severe heartburn, especially when lying down, problems breathing, constant cough which may or may not be dry, constant sore throat, and problems swallowing food.

Patients may suffer from symptoms different to those listed here. The definitive symptom is a color change in the esophagus which can only be diagnosed with an endoscopy. It may take a second opinion in order to get a definite diagnosis. Contact a doctor immediately if patients develop chest pain, is vomiting blood or passing tar-like feces which indicate blood in the stool.

Barrett’s Esophagus Causes

In many instances of Barrett’s esophagus, individuals also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD causes chronic heartburn and regurgitation of stomach acid into the mouth. However, it’s not clear if it is the GERD which causes Barrett’s esophagus, or if GERD is simply a common factor in people who are susceptible to Barrett’s esophagus.

Around 10% to 15% of people with GERD will go on to develop Barrett’s esophagus, and those with weekly acid regurgitation or heartburn are 65 times more likely to develop the condition. However, 40% of individuals with Barrett’s esophagus report that they have never experienced heartburn at all, which suggests that there are other unknown causes at play.

There are a few other risk factors to take into account which might give us some clues as to what causes Barrett’s esophagus. Firstly, men are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition. Secondly, age is a factor, with most people diagnosed in their 60s with Barrett’s esophagus. Finally, Caucasians are 10 times more likely to have the condition than African Americans, which suggests that genetics play a role in the cause.

How is Barrett’s Esophagus Treated?

If Barrett’s esophagus has been caught early enough, simple heartburn medications and not-so-simple lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and eating a healthier diet may cure symptoms. Patients with high grade Barrett’s esophagus need the damaged portions of their esophagus removed. This is done through cryotherapy, photodynamic therapy, heat therapy or through other kinds of surgeries.

In the worst cases, the esophagus needs to be surgically removed. Patients who have been diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus should have their esophagus checked every six months for years afterward to be sure that cancer is not developing.

Barrett’s Esophagus Prevention

Since it is not known exactly what causes Barrett’s esophagus, it is not possible to prevent it. However, it may be possible to prevent the uncomfortable acid reflux and heartburn which is commonly associated with the condition.

You could:

  • Eat no later than three hours before bed
  • Consume smaller meals
  • Avoid bending over after eating
  • Elevate the head of the mattress or bed to keep acid in the stomach when sleeping
  • Avoid fatty foods, dairy, chocolate, caffeine, carbonated drinks, citruses, tomatoes, and alcohol

People with Barrett’s esophagus are more likely to develop a cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma. It may be possible to reduce the risk of this development by quitting tobacco and losing weight, as tobacco use, particularly chewing tobacco, and obesity are both known to increase the likelihood of Barrett’s esophagus developing into cancer.

Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
March 30, 2018
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