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Barrett's Esophagus

Overview

Individuals with chronic acid reflux or frequent heartburn are at risk for a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett's is a pre-cancerous condition, which left untreated, puts individuals at a higher risk for developing a certain type of cancer known esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Barrett’s esophagus occurs as the result of injury to the esophagus from the chronic backwash of stomach contents (like acid and enzymes) that occurs with acid reflux. Persistent acid reflux, commonly known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), is widespread in American adults.

Symptoms of Barrett’s Esophagus

Barrett's esophagus does not directly produce symptoms. However, it often occurs as a result of chronic acid reflux, which produces symptoms such as:

  • Heartburn or chest pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sore throat, hoarse voice or chronic cough
  • Sour or acidic taste in mouth
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Dysphagia (difficulty or pain with swallowing)

Determining Risk for Barrett's Esophagus

Risk factors that increase the chances of developing Barrett's esophagus include:

  • History of GERD, or long-term heartburn
  • Age 50 and over; men are at higher risk than women
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Unhealthy eating habits

In some people, the damage and inflammation associated with acid reflux can cause genetic changes that cause the normal esophageal tissue to change into intestinal tissue. When this happens, it is referred to as Barrett's esophagus. It's estimated that 13% of people who have chronic acid reflux also have Barrett's esophagus.

Therefore, the best way to prevent Barrett's esophagus is to reduce and/or treat the reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus. This is why individuals who have frequent or long-standing acid reflux symptoms should consult a physician experienced in gastroesophageal disease. Medications have not been shown to prevent the development of Barrett's esophagus or reduce the chances of it progressing to cancer.

Left untreated, acid reflux may lead to the development of pre-cancerous cells, and in a small percentage of patients, this can result in a life-threatening cancer of the esophagus known as esophageal adenocarcinoma. While rare, cancer of the esophagus is the most rapidly rising cancer in the U.S. and if discovered at a late stage can be incurable, which is why expert diagnosis and treatment are critical for individuals suffering from severe gastroesophageal reflux disease.


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