Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(9):2120

What is Barrett’s esophagus?

Your esophagus (say: ee-saw-fuh-gus) is a tube that goes from your throat to your stomach. When you swallow food, it goes through this tube and into your stomach. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (also called GERD) is a health problem you get when stomach acid goes up into your esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus can happen when stomach acid goes into your esophagus and makes changes in the lining of the esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus sometimes leads to cancer.

Who gets Barrett’s esophagus?

People who have had GERD for a long time have a higher risk of getting Barrett’s esophagus. This problem is much more common in white and Hispanic men. Smokers and people who are obese also have a higher risk. Barrett’s esophagus is more common in people older than 50 years. Most people with Barrett’s esophagus are diagnosed after 60 years of age.

When should I see my doctor about Barrett’s esophagus?

You should ask your doctor about Barrett’s esophagus if you have heartburn three or more times per week, or if you have had heartburn for many years. You also should see your doctor if you have trouble swallowing, pain with swallowing, unwanted weight loss, blood in your vomit or bowel movements, or bowel movements that look like black tar.

How is Barrett’s esophagus treated?

Barrett’s esophagus usually is treated with medicines called proton pump inhibitors. These medicines cut down on the amount of acid in your stomach. Sometimes, surgery can make less stomach acid get into your esophagus.

What can I expect if I have Barrett’s esophagus?

If you have Barrett’s esophagus, your doctor may have you see a specialist called a gastroenterologist. Your family doctor or the gastroenterologist may want you to have an upper endoscopy. With this test, a flexible tube goes down your throat, and the doctor looks inside your esophagus and stomach. GERD should be treated before endoscopy is done.

Patients with two endoscopies in a row that show no abnormal cells should have another endoscopy every three to five years. If your doctor finds abnormal cells on a biopsy, another expert should confirm it.

Patients with somewhat abnormal cells should get an endoscopy every year. Patients with more highly abnormal cells should get an endoscopy every three months or have surgery to remove the abnormal tissue.

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