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What is Barrett’s esophagus?
Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that affects your esophagus. That’s the tube that food travels down when you eat. It connects your throat to your stomach.
A section of muscles separates your esophagus from your stomach. Its job is to keep acid from your stomach from coming back into your esophagus. If those muscles don’t close the right way, acid goes back into your esophagus. This is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Over time, this acid can damage the lining of your esophagus. It also can make the tiny cells in your esophagus change. If this happens, it’s called Barrett’s esophagus. Although uncommon, Barrett’s esophagus can lead to cancer.
What are the symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus?
Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t cause symptoms. Instead, it’s the symptoms of GERD that typically lead your healthcare provider to discovering you have it. You should ask your healthcare provider about Barrett’s esophagus if you have heartburn 3 or more times each week. Symptoms of GERD include:
- A cough
- Trouble swallowing,
- Pain when you swallow,
- Sudden weight loss,
- Blood in your vomit or bowel movements,
- Bowel movements that look like black tar.
CAUSES & RISK FACTORS
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. Also, people who are smokers, obese, or older than 50 years of age are at greater risk. Barrett’s esophagus is more common in white and Hispanic men.
People who have severe GERD may need an endoscopy. This is an outpatient procedure to look at your esophagus and check for damage. For this test, you are given medicine to relax. Then the healthcare provider 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.
One of the complications of Barrett’s esophagus is esophageal strictures (when the esophagus becomes very narrow). One symptom of this is difficulty swallowing. When the healthcare provider performs an endoscopy for that symptom, they often will find and diagnose Barrett’s esophagus.
Can Barrett’s esophagus be prevented or avoided?
You can help prevent Barrett’s esophagus. Your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes, such as:
- Quitting smoking, if you smoke.
- Being more active.
- Losing weight.
- Avoiding foods that trigger heartburn. Common ones are coffee, chocolate, peppermint, and alcohol. Greasy, spicy, or tomato-based foods can cause heartburn as well.
How is Barrett’s esophagus treated?
Barrett’s esophagus usually is treated with medicines called proton pump inhibitors. These medicines reduce the amount of acid in your stomach. In some cases, surgery is used to keep stomach acid out of the esophagus.
Living with Barrett’s esophagus
There is no cure for Barrett’s esophagus. But treating the GERD symptoms may reduce further damage. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions to get regular endoscopies, if needed. This can detect abnormal or precancerous cells.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Canadian Cancer Society