What is Barrett's esophagus?

Barrett’s esophagus is a change in the tissue lining your esophagus, the tube in your throat that carries food to your stomach. For reasons no one understands completely, cells in the esophageal lining sometimes become more like intestinal cells.

Researchers suspect that having acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is related to Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus raises the risk of developing a rare esophageal cancer.

Who gets Barrett’s esophagus?

People who are more likely to develop Barrett’s esophagus are:

  • White.
  • Male.
  • Middle-aged or older.
  • Obese.

They may also have:

  • Family history of Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer.
  • Heartburn symptoms for 10-plus years.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

How common is Barrett’s esophagus?

On its own, Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t produce symptoms. You may discover you have it only after seeing your healthcare provider for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms or after developing esophageal cancer. Because of the lack of symptoms, no one is sure how common it is. But experts estimate that Barrett’s esophagus affects about 1% of people.

What causes Barrett’s esophagus?

Multiple factors contribute to Barrett’s esophagus. It’s more common in people with GERD. This chronic (ongoing) condition occurs when stomach contents flow backward into the esophagus. Experts believe the acidic liquid irritates the lining of the esophagus, leading to changes in the tissue. But you can also have Barrett’s esophagus without having GERD.

What are the symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus?

Barrett’s esophagus does not cause symptoms. But you can watch for signs of the conditions it’s associated with — heartburn and acid regurgitation.

Heartburn that occurs at least twice a week is the biggest red flag. Heartburn symptoms include a burning sensation in the chest and vomit in the back of the throat (acid regurgitation).

Other symptoms to watch for include:

  • Heartburn that worsens or wakes you from sleep.
  • Painful or difficult swallowing.
  • Sensation of food stuck in your esophagus.
  • Constant sore throat, sour taste in your mouth or bad breath.
  • Unintentional weight loss.
  • Blood in stool.
  • Vomiting.

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