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Barrett’s oesophagus

Find out about the symptoms of Barrett’s oesophagus and the risk of oesophageal cancer.

Barrett’s oesophagus means that some cells in the lining of your food pipe have started to change. In a small number of people these cells may develop into oesophageal cancer over a long period of time.

The cells lining the food pipe are normally flat. They’re called squamous cells. In Barrett's oesophagus they change into a type more like the columnar (column shaped) cells in the lining of the small and large bowel.

The cells may grow abnormally. Doctors call this dysplasia. The dysplasia can be low grade or high grade. The grade means how abnormal the cells look under a microscope. The more abnormal they look, the higher the grade.

Risk of oesophageal cancer

Barrett's oesophagus can increase your risk of cancer of the oesophagus.

Between 1 and 5 people in every 100 with Barrett's oesophagus (1 to 5%) go on to develop oesophageal cancer.

Checking your oesophagus

You’ll need to see your doctor regularly if you have Barrett's oesophagus. You’ll also have regular tests called endoscopies to look inside your food pipe. This checks whether the abnormal cells are developing and can also pick up oesophageal cancer early when treatment is usually successful.

Symptoms

Many people with Barrett’s oesophagus don’t have any symptoms. Doctors may find the changes in the cells when you have tests for something else.

Long term indigestion and heartburn is the most common symptom. Many people have indigestion and heartburn and it doesn’t usually mean anything is wrong. But see your GP to get checked if you have indigestion on most days for 3 weeks or more or if it is getting worse.

You may also have difficulty swallowing food. Or food may come back up from the stomach into the food pipe but this is less common.

See your doctor as soon as possible if you have problems swallowing or food coming back up.

Tests

Your doctor will send you for an endoscopy if they think you might have Barrett’s oesophagus. This test looks inside your food pipe to find any changes. It uses a long flexible tube with a light on the end.

Causes

Inflammation causes changes in the lining of your food pipe. The inflammation is caused by acid in stomach juices coming back up through the valve at the top of your stomach. This is called acid reflux.

Your risk of having acid reflux is higher if you

  • are overweight
  • smoke
  • drink more than the weekly recommended amount of alcohol
  • eat spicy or fatty foods

Coping

It can be difficult to cope with knowing that you have Barrett’s oesophagus. You may worry about the chance of developing cancer. Finding out about the condition and its treatment can help some people feel more in control.

Talk to the Cancer Research UK information nurses on freephone 0808 800 40 40. Lines are open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

You can find people to share experiences with online on our CancerChat forum.

Join the CancerChat forum

The Barrett's Oesophagus Campaign promotes research into Barrett’s oesophagus and has useful leaflets available on its website.

Treatment

The main treatments for Barrett’s oesophagus reduce indigestion and acid reflux.

You may need to have abnormal cells removed if you have high grade Barrett’s oesophagus.

The treatments can reduce the risk of cancer developing.

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2016
  • Guidelines on the Diagnosis and Management of Barrett's Oesophagus, RC Fitzgerald, M di Pietro, K Ragunath K and others. Gut. October 2013

  • Treatment for Barrett's oesophagus. JR Rees, P Lao-Sirieix P, A Wong A, RC Fitzgerald. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Jan 2010.

  • Cancer and its management (6th edition). Tobias J and Hochhauser D. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

  • Diagnosis and management of Barrett's oesophagus. J Janowski, K Wang, B Delaney. British Medical Journal, 2010.

  • Personal communication with specialist advisor.

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