Overview of Barrett's Esophagus

Barrett's esophagus is a condition caused by inflammation and damage to the lining of the esophagus. Inflammation of the esophageal lining often occurs as a result of acid reflux, also sometimes called heartburn or indigestion.

Barrett's esophagus usually is related to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or reflux esophagitis and is associated with an increased risk for esophageal cancer.

The esophagus is part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or digestive system. It is a hollow, muscular organ that carries food and liquids from the throat to the stomach. The esophagus is located between the windpipe (trachea) and the spine.

The stomach produces gastric acid, also called stomach acid, which contains enzymes that aid in the digestion of food. Normally, once food enters the stomach from the esophagus, a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter closes rapidly to prevent stomach acid from entering the esophagus.

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows back (refluxes) into the lower esophagus from the stomach. When this occurs frequently, it can cause inflammation of the lining of the esophagus (or the esophageal mucosa).

In Barrett's esophagus, damage and subsequent healing caused by chronic (frequent, long-term) acid reflux results in abnormal changes to the squamous (flat, scale-like) cells of the esophageal lining. These changes, which are referred to as metaplasia, can lead to open sores or lesions (called ulcerations) in the esophageal lining and increase the risk for cancer of the esophagus.

Incidence and Prevalence of Barrett's Esophagus

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Barrett's esophagus affects about 700,000 people in the United States. Approximately 5–10 percent of patients who have severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic heartburn, or reflux esophagitis develop Barrett's esophagus.

Barrett's esophagus is about twice as common in men as it is in women. Prevalence increases with age—55 is the average age at diagnosis—and the condition is rare in children. Caucasian men who are over the age of 60 have the highest incidence of Barrett's esophagus.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 28 Feb 2008

Last Modified: 14 Sep 2015