What is Barrett's esophagus?

Dr. Patricia L. Raymond, MD

“Barrett’s esophagus” is a worrisome aspect of reflux.

A normal esophagus has a squamous surface—the cells under a microscope appear flat and square. Sometimes the esophagus, protecting itself from chronic acid exposure, transforms itself into plump column-shaped intestinal lining with glands that protect against acid.

Good adaptation, you’d think. However, this transformation from esophagus to intestinal lining is as startling to physicians as would be transformation of your right eye into a third ear! And it’s precancerous; although esophageal cancer is uncommon, a 50-year-old person with Barrett’s has a one in seven chance of lifetime esophageal cancer.

Barrett's esophagus occurs in people with chronic acid reflux. In this video, Sharmila Anandasabapathy, MD, a gastroenterologist at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, explains the condition and how it relates to esophageal cancer.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Barrett's esophagus is the result of consistent acid reflux, a condition where the delicate tissue lining of the esophagus is eventually replaced by tissue that is similar to the lining of the intestine. This change in tissue cells can lead to cancer.

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A serious complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is Barrett's esophagus, a condition where the lining of the lower esophagus is replaced with a lining that is similar to the stomach. This change is called metaplasia, which usually forms after years of dealing with acid reflux. It is thought to be a protective mechanism performed by the esophagus but in fact this new lining is more prone to changing and becoming cancerous. If the condition is identified, it is important that the lining be continually monitored. That way, if cancer does develop, it is caught earlier. Regardless of how GERD is treated, through medical treatment or surgery, it is important to continue surveillance to detect any changes early.

Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the lining at the lower end of the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid. Normally, stomach acid is kept from splashing back up into the esophagus by the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscular valve that opens and closes when you eat or drink. When the valve doesn’t work properly, you experience a reflux of stomach acid, commonly known as heartburn or acid reflux.

When this irritation is severe or occurs frequently over a long period of time, it is referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. In turn, GERD can cause an abnormal growth of intestinal-type cells, like those found in the stomach, to occur at the lower end of the esophagus. The abnormal growth, or dysplasia, of these cells in the area just above the LES is the distinguishing feature of Barrett’s esophagus. In rare cases, the abnormal cells can result in cancer of the lower esophagus.

One of the most concerning complications that can occur from long-term severe reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is Barrett’s esophagus. In an effort to protect the esophagus from the reflux of acid, the body attempts to change its lining to become more like the stomach. Acid is necessary to digest our food, and the stomach is designed to resist the effects of acid. But the esophagus has no inherent protection. The appearance of this transformation is significant because it a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus. It is important that this condition is identified as early as possible.

Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the lining of the esophagus changes, becoming more like the lining of the small intestine than the esophagus. This occurs in the area where the esophagus is joined to the stomach. It is believed that the main reason that Barrett's esophagus develops is because of chronic inflammation resulting from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Barrett's esophagus is more common in people who have had GERD for a long period of time or who developed it at a young age. It is interesting that the frequency or the intensity of GERD symptoms, such as heartburn, does not affect the likelihood that someone will develop Barrett's esophagus.

Most patients with Barrett's esophagus will not develop cancer. In some patients, however, a precancerous change in the tissue, called dysplasia, will develop. That precancerous change is more likely to develop into esophageal cancer.

Dr. Lawrence S. Friedman, MD

A complication of chronic esophageal inflammation is Barrett's esophagus, an abnormality in which taller cells resembling those that line the small intestine replace the squamous or flat cells that normally line the lower esophagus. The condition, a potential consequence of longstanding gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is caused by long-term and severe exposure to acid from the stomach and bile from the small intestine. Barrett's esophagus can, over time, develop into cancer, so patients are urged to have regular endoscopic evaluations (including biopsies) to identify very early malignant changes. Persons most at risk are those—usually middle-aged white men—who developed GERD at an early age and have had it for many years.

One study reported a higher risk for esophageal cancer in GERD patients, whether or not they have Barrett's esophagus. Fortunately, only a very small percentage of patients with GERD will develop esophageal cancer. Some experts think it's the reflux of bile, in addition to acid, that heightens the risk for esophageal cancer.

Dr. Vijay K. Nuthakki, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

The esophagus is a muscular tube like structure which carries food from the mouth to the stomach. The inner lining of the esophagus is composed of stratified squamous epithelium. The lining of the stomach and intestines is composed of columnar epithelium. With chronic exposure to acid or bile reflux, the lining of the esophagus may change to columnar epithelium, intestinal metaplasia. The lining of the esophagus with columnar as opposed to the normal squamous, epithelium, is referred to as Barrett's esophagus.

Barrett's esophagus is a precancerous condition of the esophagus. It develops when cells in the esophagus become damaged by chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The abnormal cells, chronically exposed to stomach acid, and bile, lose their normal character and take on characteristics of cells that normally line the intestine. This process is called intestinal metaplasia. Barrett's esophagus is a risk factor for esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have changed or been replaced with abnormal cells that could lead to cancer of the esophagus. The backing up of stomach contents (reflux) may irritate the esophagus and, over time, cause Barrett's esophagus.

This answer is based on source information from National Cancer Institute.

Barrett's esophagus is a pre-cancerous condition affecting the lining of the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.

Barrett's esophagus occurs in some patients who have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). With GERD, the normal cells of the esophagus can become damaged and change over time. For patients who have these changes in the cells lining the esophagus, esophageal ablation may be a good treatment option.

Barrett's esophagus is a change in the cells lining the lower esophagus that can lead to esophageal cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.