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Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that affects your esophagus. This is the tube that goes from your throat to your stomach. When you swallow, food travels down this tube and into your stomach. If these muscles don’t close all the way, stomach acid can go back up into your esophagus. This is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Over time, this acid can damage the lining of your esophagus. Although not common, Barrett’s esophagus can lead to cancer.
Symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus
Heartburn is the main sign of Barrett’s esophagus. Contact your doctor if you have it 3 or more times a week. You may have symptoms of GERD, which include:
- trouble swallowing
- pain when you swallow
- sudden weight loss
- blood in your vomit or bowel movements
- bowel movements that look like black tar.
What causes Barrett’s esophagus?
Repeat damage from stomach acid causes Barrett’s esophagus. People who have GERD have a higher risk of getting it. So are people who are smokers, obese, or older than 50 years of age. Barrett’s esophagus is more common in white and Hispanic men.
How is Barrett’s esophagus diagnosed?
If you have GERD, your doctor likely will monitor you for Barrett’s esophagus. People who have severe GERD may need an endoscopy. This is an outpatient procedure to look at your esophagus and check for damage. In this test, the doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube in your throat. They may take a tissue sample to biopsy. This can detect abnormal cells, which can lead to cancer.
If the test shows normal cells, your doctor will recommend a follow-up endoscopy every 3 to 5 years. If the test shows abnormal cells, you may need an endoscopy once a year.
Can Barrett’s esophagus be prevented or avoided?
You can help prevent Barrett’s esophagus. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as:
- Quit smoking, if you smoke.
- Be more active.
- Lose weight.
- Avoid foods that trigger heartburn. Common ones are coffee, chocolate, peppermint, and alcohol. Greasy, spicy, or tomato-based foods can cause heartburn as well.
Barrett’s esophagus treatment
The main form of treatment is medicines called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These help relieve pain and reduce the amount of acid in your stomach. They keep Barrett’s esophagus from getting worse. In severe cases, surgery may be done to stop reflux and keep stomach acid out of the esophagus.
Living with Barrett’s esophagus
There is no cure for Barrett’s esophagus. Treatment can improve GERD symptoms and reduce further damage. Follow your doctor’s orders to get regular endoscopies. This can detect abnormal or precancerous cells.
Questions to ask your doctor
- If I have GERD, will I eventually have Barrett’s esophagus?
- How long do I need to take medicine to treat Barrett’s esophagus?
- What are the side effects of treatment?
- Are there lifestyle changes I can make to help ease my symptoms?
- If I have Barrett’s esophagus, what is my risk of cancer?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.