Barrett's esophagus (ih-SAH-fuh-gus) is an uncommon condition in which the tissue lining the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid and is replaced by tissue that is similar to the lining of the intestines.
The esophagus is a muscular tube that carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach. It is separated from the stomach by a muscle called a sphincter, which opens to allow food and drink to enter the stomach and then closes to prevent the food and drink from leaking back into the esophagus.
Barrett's esophagus is quite rare in children and is seen primarily in adults. Most people who develop Barrett's esophagus have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes stomach acid to flow back up into the lower esophagus. Doctors believe this damages the cells in the esophagus and causes them to change. It also can be seen in children with neuromuscular problems or structural abnormalities in their esophagus. In some cases, however, people can get Barrett's esophagus for no apparent reason.
Normally, the cells that line the esophagus are flat shaped (called squamous cells). With Barrett's esophagus, the cells are shaped like columns. This change in cells is a phase called metaplasia. If not treated, this phase may sometimes lead to cancer of the esophagus, although in most cases it doesn't.
Barrett's esophagus doesn't cause any symptoms on its own, but GERD may cause heartburn, chest pain, and difficulty swallowing food.
Treatment usually involves treating the acid reflux associated with GERD. In severe cases that seem likely to lead to cancer, surgery may be done to destroy the abnormal cells or remove part of the esophagus.
Barrett's esophagus is rare in children. Treatment won't reverse the condition; once the cells have changed, they can't change back. But proper treatment and certain lifestyle changes — such as maintaining a healthy weight; eating healthy foods; not smoking; and eating smaller, more frequent meals — can ease symptoms and keep Barrett's esophagus from getting worse. A doctor may prescribe medications that can limit GERD symptoms. Rarely, in severe cases doctors might recommend surgical removal of the affected portion of the esophagus.
All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.
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