Symptoms of GERD, such as acid reflux, are often overlooked as minor. However, chronic inflammation in your esophagus can lead to complications. One of the most serious complications is Barrett’s esophagus.

Barrett’s esophagus occurs when the tissue of the esophagus is replaced by tissue more similar to that of the intestinal lining.

This change is called metaplasia. Metaplasia is a process where one type of cell is replaced with another. In the case of Barrett’s esophagus, esophageal cells are replaced with cells more like those seen in the intestines. It’s thought that this is a result of chronic inflammation.

Read on to learn more about this condition and how it can develop as a complication of acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Learn more: What are the differences between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD? »

Barrett’s can be a complication of GERD, but also conditions such as peptic stricture and erosive esophagitis.

Just because you experience acid reflux doesn’t mean you will necessarily develop Barrett’s esophagus. That said, if you experience acid reflux a lot and you have a diagnosis of GERD, you are more likely to develop this over time.

This is because acid reflux associated with GERD can damage the lining of the esophagus, leading to metaplasia over time.

How long does it take for acid reflux to turn into Barrett’s esophagus?

Generally speaking, it can take 5 to 10 years for Barrett’s esophagus to fully develop, though this can vary from person to person.

Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t directly cause any symptoms. However, prolonged irritation of the esophagus can cause symptoms such as frequent heartburn, chest pain, or difficulty swallowing.

If you have any of these symptoms for a long time, you may have developed Barrett’s esophagus

How do you confirm Barrett’s esophagus?

Because the condition is not easily identifiable from your symptoms alone, the way to confirm you have it is with an endoscopy.

This is a procedure in which a doctor inserts a small tube with a light and a camera into your stomach to collect tissue samples from your esophagus that they can then study in a laboratory to see if they contain metaplasic cells.

About 5.6% of people in the U.S. develop this condition, and 5% to 15% of people with GERD. Certain factors may put you at higher risk for Barrett’s esophagus. These include:

  • being male
  • being white and over the age of 50
  • having GERD for at least 10 years
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • having a family history of the condition

Barrett’s esophagus increases the risk of esophageal cancer. However, this risk remains small. Only about 0.5% to 1% of people with Barrett’s develop it.

If you are diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, your doctor may want to watch for early signs of cancer. You will need regularly scheduled biopsies. Examinations will look for precancerous cells. The presence of precancerous cells is known as dysplasia.

Regular screening tests can detect cancer at an early stage. Early detection prolongs survival. Detecting and treating precancerous cells may even help prevent cancer.

There are several treatment options for Barrett’s esophagus. Treatment depends on whether you have dysplasia and to what degree.

Treatment for people with no or low-grade dysplasia may require regular endoscopic monitoring along with making sure you’re managing your GERD with things like lifestyle and diet changes and medications.

Treatment for people with high-grade dysplasia is more serious. The goal is to remove the precancerous cells. This can be done in several ways, including surgery such as endoscopic mucosal resection, cryotherapy, radiofrequency ablation, and, less commonly, photodynamic therapy.

All treatment methods carry a risk of serious side effects. Discuss the risks in detail with your physician before deciding on a treatment. Potential treatments include the following:

Learn more: Treatment options for Barrett’s esophagus and OTC GERD treatments: A look at the options.

Diagnosis and treatment of GERD may help to prevent Barrett’s esophagus. However, once you have the condition, whether or not it can be reversed depends on how long you’ve had it, whether you have dysplasia, and whether treatment can effectively manage risk factors like acid reflux.

The goal of endoscopic procedures is to eradicate dysplasia and metaplasia, which effectively reverses Barrett’s esophagus. That said, doing so successfully is more likely in early or uncomplicated cases.

One of the most severe complications of GERD is Barrett’s esophagus. It’s caused by chronic inflammation in the esophagus.

Although experiencing acid reflux does not necessarily mean you will develop Barrett’s esophagus, if you have GERD and frequent episodes of acid reflux are more prone to developing it over time.