Medically reviewed by Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH
Barrett’s esophagus is a complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and can sometimes be a precursor for esophageal cancer. The condition occurs when the tissue lining the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach) begins to resemble tissue that lines the intestines as a result of chronic regurgitation of stomach acid into the esophagus.
“Barrett’s esophagus is considered a pre-cancer, but with careful monitoring and treatment, specialists can help prevent it from turning into cancer,” says Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber.
The condition is surprisingly common; approximately one in six Americans have reflux symptoms weekly, and about 10 percent of these Americans have Barrett’s esophagus. Here are five things you should know about the condition:
1. What are the symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus?
Because Barrett’s esophagus is often a complication of GERD, many people show symptoms of GERD. These include chronic heartburn, nausea, pain in the chest or upper abdomen, vomiting, problems swallowing, bad breath, or respiratory problems.
2. How does Barrett’s esophagus relate to esophageal cancer?
Having Barrett’s esophagus slightly increases your risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the esophagus. If diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, it is important to have regular exams on your esophagus to detect precancerous cells. If the cells are caught early, they can be treated before they spread.
3. Who is at risk for Barrett’s esophagus?
People with chronic symptoms of GERD, including heartburn, laryngitis, and nausea, are at a higher risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus. In fact, about 10 percent of people with GERD will develop the condition.
White males who have had long-term GERD are also more likely than others to develop Barrett’s esophagus, as well as people who smoke or are overweight.
4. If I have Barrett’s esophagus, will I get esophageal cancer?
Not everyone with Barrett’s esophagus will develop esophageal cancer. The risk is low, as less than 1 percent of people with Barrett’s esophagus will develop esophageal cancer. However, it is still important to seek regular check-ups with your doctor to monitor the condition.
5. What do I do if I’m diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus?
If diagnosed with Barrett’s Esophagus, it is important to maintain regular checkups with your doctor. Your doctor will likely recommend you have periodic endoscopies to examine the esophagus for cancerous or precancerous cells. During an endoscopy, a doctor inserts a long, flexible tube with a camera down the throat to examine the esophagus. Once inserted, the doctor can examine the lining of the esophagus for cancerous or precancerous cells and can remove a small sample of tissue to be further examined at a lab if necessary.
Treatment for Barrett’s esophagus involves controlling symptoms of GERD. This is done through lifestyle changes, such as eliminating fatty foods, chocolate, caffeine, and spicy foods. Medications can also help, such as proton pump inhibitors which reduce the production of stomach acid, antacids to neutralize stomach acid, and promotility agents, which speed the movement of food from the stomach to the intestines.