Got serious heartburn?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, roughly 20 percent of people in the U.S. experience symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) weekly. GERD is a more chronic and serious form of acid reflux that causes stomach acid to flow back up into the esophagus.
Many people with GERD treat symptoms using over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. What many people do not know is that, while OTC drugs might alleviate symptoms of GERD, you could still have a serious underlying condition causing your GERD.
What is Barrett’s esophagus?
According to Dr. Arun Ohri, gastroenterologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Digestive Health Institute in Chicago, Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which chronic, untreated GERD causes damage to the inner lining of the esophagus.
“In people who have Barrett’s esophagus, normal cells lining the esophagus are destroyed and replaced with gland cells that look and act like the cells that line the stomach,” Dr. Ohri says. Gland cells are more resistant to stomach acid and can become abnormal over time when living in the esophagus.
“The abnormal cell growth that can occur with Barrett’s esophagus is concerning because it can ultimately lead to dysplasia, a precancerous condition that can cause a rare form of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma,” Dr. Ohri says. “Statistically, the odds of developing cancer from Barrett’s esophagus are low. But when esophageal cancer does develop, it is very serious.”
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for localized esophageal cancer is just below 40 percent. The survival rate drops to 4 percent when the cancer has spread to surrounding organs or lymph nodes.
Are you at risk?
“Barrett’s esophagus is a particularly tricky condition to diagnose because a majority of people do not report any signs or symptoms,” Dr. Ohri adds. “The only way the condition can be diagnosed is when a patient undergoes an upper endoscopy—a procedure that provides the physician with a visualization of the upper gastrointestinal system.”
While Barrett’s esophagus is difficult to diagnose without tests, there are still signs and risk factors physicians look for. Symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus are similar to those of acid reflux and GERD. You might have heartburn—a burning sensation in the mid-chest—regurgitation and nausea, says Dr. Ohri.
“The longer someone has GERD, especially if it is unmanaged, the more likely that person is to develop Barrett’s,” Dr. Ohri says. “If you have had GERD for a while—even if you are treating symptoms with OTC medications—you should talk with your doctor about checking for Barrett’s.”
Other risk factors for Barrett’s esophagus include:
- Poor diet
- Being obese or overweight around the midsection
- Being male—men are twice as likely as women to develop Barrett’s esophagus
- Being Caucasian—Caucasians are more frequently affected than people of other races
- Age—diagnosis usually occurs around age 55
- Family history
What can you do to avoid Barrett’s esophagus?
Dr. Ohri recommends five tips for managing acid reflux and preventing the development of Barrett’s esophagus:
- Avoid smoking.
- Eat a healthy, well balanced diet.
- Exercise to maintain a healthy weight.
- Know your health history. Has anyone else in your family been diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus? If so, talk with your doctor about your risk for developing the condition.
- Work with your doctor to achieve maximum control of your acid reflux symptoms.
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.