Barrett's esophagus: Understanding the connection to GERD and preventing cancer


by Dean Ehrlich, MD

Mar 14, 2024

Have you ever experienced an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest after a hearty meal? Most of us have, but for some, it might be more than just heartburn. That persistent discomfort that you’re brushing off as indigestion could be a sign of something else. You could have Barrett’s esophagus.

Let’s take a look at what Barrett's esophagus is, how it’s connected to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), signs that you could be developing the condition, prevention tips and treatment options.

What is Barrett's esophagus?

The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Barrett's esophagus is a condition where the cell lining of the esophagus is damaged by chronic acid exposure and starts to resemble that of intestinal cells. It is a pre-malignant condition, meaning it has the potential to turn into esophageal cancer; this change is called "intestinal metaplasia."

What causes Barrett’s esophagus?

In most cases, Barrett's esophagus is a result of long-standing GERD, a condition in which stomach acid flows back into the esophagus. But it’s important to note that some people develop Barrett's esophagus without any prior symptoms of GERD. This is most likely to happen in the presence of other risk factors, including:

  • Male sex
  • Age older than 50
  • Caucasian race
  • Obesity
  • Tobacco use
  • Family history of Barrett's esophagus or esophageal cancer

How is Barrett's esophagus diagnosed?

Barrett's esophagus has no symptoms until it progresses into cancer. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the risk factors and get screened if necessary. Your doctor can help determine if screening is a good option for you.

People with long-standing GERD (particularly if you have multiple risk factors for Barrett's esophagus) can be screened with an upper endoscopy by a gastroenterologist. This procedure involves inserting a flexible tube with a camera down the throat to examine the esophagus.

What is Barrett's esophagus without dysplasia?

The goal with Barrett's esophagus is to catch the condition before it becomes cancer and prevent cancer from ever forming. Your treatment options depend on whether the cells have started turning into cancer, called “dysplasia.” If Barrett's esophagus is found, your options include careful monitoring of the cells over time or treatment by a gastroenterologist to remove the pre-cancerous cells. There is no cure for Barrett's esophagus, and it cannot be reversed.

How to prevent Barrett's esophagus from progressing

Understanding the connection between GERD and Barrett's esophagus is crucial for preventing this condition from progressing into cancer. If you have risk factors or are living with GERD, it’s important to talk to your doctor.

By managing GERD and other risk factors, you can take steps to prevent Barrett's esophagus and maintain your overall health. Connect with a gastroenterologist today.

About the Author

Dean Ehrlich, MD is a gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Plano and Baylor Scott & White The Heart Hospital - Plano.

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