In Barrett's esophagus, tissue in the tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus) is replaced by tissue similar to the intestinal lining.
Barrett's esophagus is often diagnosed in people who have long-term gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) â a chronic regurgitation of acid from the stomach into the lower esophagus. Only a small percentage of people with GERD will develop Barrett's esophagus.
Barrett's esophagus is associated with an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. Although the risk is small, it's important to have regular checkups for precancerous cells (dysplasia). If precancerous cells are discovered, they can be treated to prevent esophageal cancer.
Mayo Clinic's approach to Barrett's esophagus care
The tissue changes that characterize Barrett's esophagus cause no symptoms. The signs and symptoms that you experience are generally due to GERD and may include:
Many people with Barrett's esophagus have no signs or symptoms.
If you've had trouble with heartburn and acid reflux for more than five years, ask your doctor about your risk of Barrett's esophagus.
Seek immediate help if you:
The exact cause of Barrett's esophagus isn't known. Most people with Barrett's esophagus have long-standing GERD.
In GERD, stomach contents wash back into the esophagus, damaging esophagus tissue. As the esophagus tries to heal itself, the cells can change to the type of cells found in Barrett's esophagus.
However, some people diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus have never experienced heartburn or acid reflux. It's not clear what causes Barrett's esophagus in these people.
Endoscopy is generally used to determine if you have Barrett's esophagus.
A lighted tube with a camera at the end (endoscope) is passed down your throat to check for signs of changing esophagus tissue. Normal esophagus tissue appears pale and glossy. In Barrett's esophagus, the tissue appears red and velvety.
Your doctor will remove tissue (biopsy) from your esophagus. The biopsied tissue can be examined to determine the degree of change.
A doctor who specializes in examining tissue in a laboratory (pathologist) determines the degree of dysplasia in your esophagus cells. Because it can be difficult to diagnose dysplasia in the esophagus, it's best to have two pathologists â with at least one who specializes in gastroenterology pathology â agree on your diagnosis. Your tissue may be classified as:
The American College of Gastroenterology says screening may be recommended for men who have had GERD symptoms at least weekly that don't respond to treatment with proton pump inhibitor medication, and who have at least two more risk factors, including:
While women are significantly less likely to have Barrett's esophagus, women should be screened if they have uncontrolled reflux or have other risk factors for Barrett's esophagus.
People with Barrett's esophagus have an increased risk of esophageal cancer. The risk is small, even in people who have precancerous changes in their esophagus cells. Most people with Barrett's esophagus will never develop esophageal cancer.
Lifestyle changes can ease symptoms of GERD, which may underlie Barrett's esophagus. Consider:
Factors that increase your risk of Barrett's esophagus include: