In Barrett's esophagus, also called Barrett's syndrome, the cells that line the inside of the esophagus are replaced by cells like those that line the inside of the stomach. This change in the type of cell may occur with long-term exposure of the esophagus to stomach juices, such as from chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The new cells are more resistant to stomach acid. But inflammation, sores (ulcers), and bleeding can still occur in that part of the esophagus.
You can treat GERD to control your symptoms and feel better. Having Barrett's esophagus slightly raises the risk for esophageal cancer. If Barrett's esophagus is suspected, a doctor may want to test the lining of the esophagus now and then to check for cells that may develop into cancer. These tests may include endoscopy and doing a biopsy of any cells that do not look normal.
What causes Barrett's esophagus?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause Barrett's. Acid from your stomach backs up into the esophagus and causes the cells to change.
How is Barrett's esophagus diagnosed?
Your doctor can find Barrett's esophagus only through a test called endoscopy. It can't be found through symptoms, a physical exam, or blood tests.
During endoscopy, your doctor uses a tube called an endoscope. The tube is passed through your mouth, down your throat, and into your esophagus. Your doctor will look at the esophagus through the tube. The doctor may take a small piece of tissue (biopsy). This tissue is sent to a lab. The lab tests it for Barrett's esophagus.
If you have Barrett's esophagus, your doctor may suggest that you have endoscopy on a regular schedule. This lets your doctor check for cell changes and cancer. Your doctor will tell you how often you need this test.
When to call
Barrett’s esophagus: When to call
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You have new or worse belly pain.
- You are vomiting.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You have any pain or difficulty swallowing.
- You are losing weight.
- You have new or worse symptoms, such as heartburn.
- You do not get better as expected.
How can you care for yourself when you have Barrett's esophagus?
- Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
- If you take over-the-counter medicine, such as antacids or acid reducers, follow all instructions on the label. If you use these medicines often, talk with your doctor. Be careful when you take over-the-counter antacid medicines. Many of these medicines have aspirin in them. Read the label to make sure that you are not taking more than the recommended dose. Too much aspirin can be harmful.
- Do not smoke or chew tobacco. Smoking can make gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
- Avoid foods that make your symptoms worse. These may include chocolate, mint, alcohol, pepper, spicy foods, high-fat foods, or drinks with caffeine in them, such as tea, coffee, colas, or energy drinks. If your symptoms are worse after you eat a certain food, you may want to stop eating it to see if your symptoms get better.
- Eat smaller meals, and more often. After eating, wait 2 to 3 hours before you lie down.
- Raise the head of your bed 6 in. (15 cm) to 8 in. (20 cm) by putting blocks under the frame or a foam wedge under the head of the mattress. Adding extra pillows does not work.
- Do not wear tight clothing around your midsection.
- Lose weight if you are overweight or obese. Losing just 5 to 10 pounds can help.
- Go to regular follow-up testing, even if you don't have symptoms. It helps your doctor watch for signs of more changes that may lead to cancer.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.