Barrett’s esophagus: when good cells turn bad

Barrett’s esophagus is a disease that happens when the cells that normally line the esophagus have been hurt over time, usually by reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). These damaged cells change into a completely different type of cell—one that looks like the cells of your intestines.

Once they change into this new type of cell, there’s no changing them back. This can cause symptoms since these are a different type of cell from what your body normally has in your esophagus.

Symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus

If you have GERD, the symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus may be the same. You might have symptoms like:

  • Waking up during the night with bad heartburn
  • Having difficulty with swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Seeing blood in your vomit or bowel movements

Some people with Barrett’s esophagus don’t have any symptoms at all, or the symptoms look or feel like something else. If you’re having symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus or GERD, get it checked out with your doctor.

Who’s at risk for Barrett’s esophagus?

The biggest risk factor for Barrett’s esophagus is having GERD, chronic reflux or heartburn. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables and maintaining a healthy weight are key ways to lower your risk. Being overweight, especially if you carry your weight in the belly area, increases your risk for GERD.

Some of the risk factors for Barrett’s esophagus are luck of the draw—if you’re male, white, or over 50, you’re at increased risk.

Lights, camera, diagnosis!

To diagnose Barrett’s esophagus, your doctor will ask you some questions and do a physical exam. You’ll also need an endoscopy, a test where a narrow tube with a tiny camera is inserted into the throat and down through the esophagus to take a look.

The endoscopy tube also holds tiny tools that can take a sample of your esophageal cells. A specialist will look at the cells under a microscope to see if they’ve changed. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may order other tests, too.

Treatments for Barrett’s esophagus

Once the cells in the esophagus have changed, they can’t change back. Your treatments will focus on controlling your symptoms and minimizing any ongoing reflux.

Depending on your symptoms, treatments can include:

  • Medicines to reduce stomach acids and reflux
  • Surgery to remove part of the esophagus
  • Dilation treatment to gently reopen a narrowed esophagus

In some cases, having Barrett’s esophagus can increase your risk for esophageal cancer. If you have Barrett’s esophagus, it’s important to develop an ongoing relationship with your doctor. Even if you’re not having symptoms, you’ll need periodic screenings to check your esophagus for any new changes.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.