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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Frequently Asked Questions About Heartburn and Reflux

6. What is Barrett's esophagus and how is it treated? continued...

The symptoms of Barrett's esophagus are the same as those of GERD, although often more severe. These symptoms include a burning sensation under the chest and acid regurgitation. These symptoms generally decrease with drugs that reduce acid in the stomach. Some people with Barrett's esophagus may not have any symptoms at all.

The only way to confirm the diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus is with a test called an upper endoscopy. This involves inserting a small, lighted tube (endoscope) through the throat and into the esophagus to look for a change in the lining of the esophagus. While the appearance of the esophagus may suggest Barrett's esophagus, the diagnosis can only be confirmed with small samples of tissue (biopsy) obtained through the endoscope.

The treatment of Barrett's esophagus is similar to the treatment of reflux. This includes lifestyle changes, such as avoiding certain foods and eating late in the evening, smoking cessation, and wearing loose-fitting clothing, along with using medications that will decrease acid production by the stomach.

Patients with Barrett's esophagus typically need PPI drugs to reduce acid.

Barrett's esophagus may lead to the development of cancer of the esophagus in some patients, although this risk is smaller than once thought. Up to 0.5% of those with Barrett's esophagus will develop esophageal cancer each year.

Esophageal cancer develops through a sequence of changes in the cells of the esophagus known as dysplasia. Dysplasia can only be detected by a biopsy. Patients with Barrett's esophagus should talk to their doctors about having regular screening exams to detect cancer at an early and potentially curable stage.

Studies are in progress to develop a more effective treatment for Barrett's esophagus. One treatment, known as ablation therapy, removes the abnormal cells with heat or laser light. Other new treatments are also under development.

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