As many as 10% of Americans suffer from Barrett’s esophagus, which is a condition that happens when the tissue lining the esophagus undergoes changes. Over time, these changes can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t cause symptoms on its own, but it is associated with specific risk factors. Knowing what those risk factors are is important for preventing Barrett’s esophagus and for seeking an early diagnosis.
Our providers at Digestive Disease Specialists, with locations in Moline, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, are experts in diagnosing and treating Barrett’s esophagus. In this post, we explain what Barrett’s esophagus is and some of the risk factors for developing this condition.
Understanding Barrett’s esophagus
Like other parts of your body, your esophagus is made of a specific type of tissue designed specifically for the “job” of the esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus happens when that tissue changes into tissue that’s very similar to the type of tissue that lines your intestine.
While researchers don’t know the precise cause of Barrett’s esophagus, they do know that it tends to happen in people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD happens when the muscular sphincter at the end of your esophagus is damaged, allowing stomach acids to reflux or move backward.
Over time, the acids damage the esophagus’ lining, and sometimes, these changes lead to Barrett’s esophagus. People with GERD usually have symptoms like heartburn, chest discomfort, sore throat, hoarseness, or chronic bad breath. But some people with Barrett’s esophagus never experience the heartburn symptoms associated with GERD, which is a condition called silent reflux.
Symptoms and risk factors
While GERD is typically what leads to Barrett’s esophagus, there are also other risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing the condition. These include:
- Family history of GERD or Barrett’s esophagus
- Being overweight or obese
- Being age 50 or older
- Being male
- Being white
- Smoking history (current or past)
Not all GERD leads to Barrett’s esophagus, but if you have GERD that doesn’t respond to treatment, you’re more likely to have Barrett’s esophagus as well.
Diagnosing Barrett’s esophagus
Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t always lead to cancer, but it does increase your risk of developing it. If you have Barrett’s esophagus, or if you’re at risk of developing the condition, having an evaluation is important.
During your evaluation, our team uses a special scope — called an endoscope — to visualize your esophagus. Specifically, we look for changes in the lining material of the esophagus. If we notice unusual areas of tissue, we can use the scope to take a tiny tissue sample for evaluation in a lab.
If you’re diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, these endoscopic evaluations are performed on a regular basis to look for very early signs of cancer or precancer, so they can be treated. Our team also provides advanced medical therapy to help you manage GERD and prevent future acid erosion and irritation.
Don’t ignore GERD symptoms
Occasional heartburn is usually nothing to worry about. But if you have heartburn on a regular basis, you should have it medically evaluated, even if you can relieve it with over-the-counter products. Early evaluation can help prevent Barrett’s esophagus or prevent it from progressing to a more serious stage.
To learn more about Barrett’s esophagus or GERD, request an appointment online or over the phone with Digestive Disease Specialists today.