Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the cells that make up your esophagus begin to look like those of your intestines. Treatment options range from medication to surgery.

The cells in the esophagus, known as squamous cells, are normally flat. In Barret’s esophagus, however, these cells start to resemble the column-like cells in your intestine.

Barrett’s esophagus affects approximately 5.6% of people in the United States.

One of the condition’s biggest risk factors is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This condition occurs when stomach contents like acid flow back up into the esophagus, causing symptoms like acid reflux and heartburn.

It’s estimated that up to 15 in 100 people with GERD will receive a diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for Barret’s esophagus.

There are no specific symptoms that characterize Barrett’s esophagus.

However, most people experience symptoms of GERD because it’s common to have this condition before Barrett’s esophagus develops.

Symptoms of GERD may include:

When to get medical attention

It’s important to get immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

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The exact cause of Barrett’s esophagus is not yet known, but the condition is most often seen in people with GERD.

GERD occurs when the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus become weaker and stop working properly. This means they can’t fully prevent food and acid from coming back up into the esophagus.

The cells that line your stomach can handle acids, but the cells in your esophagus are more sensitive. They become inflamed when they come into contact with the stomach acid that comes back up.

Over time, long-term exposure to stomach acid may cause the cells in the esophagus to become abnormal, a process known as dysplasia. If you’re living with GERD, this is more likely to happen due to chronic exposure to acid.

You may have an increased risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus if you experience GERD symptoms for longer than 10 years, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG).

Other risk factors for developing Barrett’s esophagus may include:

  • being assigned male at birth
  • being of white ethnicity
  • being over age 50 years
  • having H pylori gastritis
  • having obesity
  • smoking
  • genetics, such as someone in your family having the condition

Some factors that aggravate GERD may also worsen Barrett’s esophagus, including:

Barrett’s esophagus is usually diagnosed by performing an endoscopy.

During this procedure, a healthcare professional uses an endoscope – a tube with a small camera and light on it – to see the inside of your esophagus. They will check to make sure your esophagus looks pink and shiny.

People with Barrett’s esophagus may have an esophagus that looks red and velvety, known as columnar metaplasia.

A doctor may also perform a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus. This could help them look for dysplasia and signs of cancerous cells.

The tissue sample will be ranked based on the following degrees of change:

  • No dysplasia: No visible cell abnormalities.
  • Low grade dysplasia: Small amount of cell abnormalities.
  • High grade dysplasia: Large amount of cell abnormalities and cells that may become cancerous.

The ACG recommends males get tested for Barrett’s esophagus if they’ve experienced GERD symptoms for 5 years and have at least two risk factors.

Treatment for Barrett’s esophagus will depend on the level of dysplasia.

No or low grade dysplasia

Treatment for no or low grade dysplasia may include:

  • endoscopic surveillance every 3–5 years
  • medications to help manage GERD symptoms, such as proton pump inhibitors

In some cases, a healthcare professional may recommend surgery to help manage your symptoms of GERD.

High grade dysplasia

More invasive medical procedures may be required to help treat high grade dysplasia.

For example, removing damaged areas of the esophagus through the use of endoscopy. In some cases, entire portions of the esophagus are removed.

Other treatments may include:

If left untreated, Barrett’s esophagus may lead to esophageal adenocarcinoma.

That said, it’s important to note the progression happens very gradually and the risk is small.

Some research suggests that only 5 in 100 people will develop esophageal cancer if they have Barrett’s esophagus. In the United Kingdom, up to 13 in 100 people may develop esophageal cancer during their lifetime.

High grade dysplasia is more likely to develop into cancer compared with low grade dysplasia.

Can Barrett’s esophagus be cured?

There’s no cure for Barrett’s esophagus, but treatment could help relieve GERD symptoms and stop the disease from progressing.

What causes Barrett’s esophagus?

Barrett’s esophagus happens when long-term stomach acid causes inflammation in the esophageal cells. Over time, this causes the esophageal cells to change shape.

How long does it take for Barrett’s esophagus to become cancerous?

There’s no exact timeframe for when Barrett’s esophagus becomes cancerous. However, it usually takes many years and may be prevented with early treatment.

Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that may develop if you have GERD.

Although it raises your risk of developing esophageal cancer, most people with this condition never develop cancer.

If you have GERD, speak with a doctor to develop a treatment plan that will help you manage your symptoms. This may include a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery.

It’s also important to schedule frequent follow-up appointments with your doctor so they can monitor the lining of your esophagus. This will make it more likely that they will discover cancerous cells in the early stages.