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What is Barrett's Esophagus?

Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food and saliva from the mouth to the stomach, changes so that some of its lining is replaced by a type of tissue similar to that normally found in the intestine.


This is called intestinal metaplasia. While Barrett's esophagus may cause no symptoms itself, a small number of people with this condition develop a relatively rare but often deadly type of cancer of the esophagus called esophageal adenocarcinoma. Barrett's esophagus is estimated to affect about 700,000 adults in the United States.

Who gets Barrett's esophagus?

People who have had gastroesophageal reflux disease (also called GERD) for a long time have a higher risk of Barrett's esophagus. Although people who do not have heartburn can have Barrett's esophagus, it is found about three to five more times more in people with GERD. Barrett's is more common in white and Hispanic men. Smokers and people who are obese also have a higher risk. Barrett's esophagus is more common in people over 50 years of age.

Many physicians recommend that adult patients who are over the age of 40 and have GERD symptoms for a number of years have endoscopy to see whether they have Barrett's esophagus. During endoscopy, your doctor may remove tissue samples (biopsies) of potentially abnormal areas to be examined under the microscope to make the diagnosis. Talk to your primary physician or gastroenterologist if you need to be evaluated for Barrett's esophagus.

The process of change from Barrett's to cancer seems to happen only in a few patients, less than 1 percent per year, and over a relatively long period of time. Patients with Barrett's esophagus undergo periodic surveillance endoscopy to have biopsies and determine if there are any changes that indicate progression. The recommended interval between endoscopies varies depending on specific circumstances, usually between one and three years.

How is Barrett's esophagus treated?

Barrett's esophagus is usually treated with medicines called proton pump inhibitors (brand names like Nexium or Prevacid). These medicines reduce the amount of acid in your stomach. In some cases, surgery is used to keep stomach acid out of the esophagus. Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, exercising, losing weight, and avoiding foods that make heartburn worse are usually recommended.

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