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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 esophagus. 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