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Barrett’s oesophagus

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.

What is Barrett's oesophagus?

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.

What is the risk of developing oesophageal cancer?

Barrett's oesophagus can increase your risk of cancer of the oesophagus, although the risk is still small. Many people with Barrett’s oesophagus do not develop cancer.

Between 3 and 13 people out of 100 (between 3 and 13%) with Barrett’s oesophagus in the UK will develop oesophageal adenocarcinoma in their lifetime. And each year, less than 1 in 100 people with Barrett’s (less than 1%) develop oesophageal adenocarcinoma. Your risk of developing oesophageal cancer is higher if you have more severe cell changes (high grade dysplasia). 

Risks and causes

Barrett's oesophagus is more common in men than women. And it is also more common in older people. Other risk factors include:

  • having a history of acid reflux symptoms
  • being overweight and your fat being mainly around your waist (abdominal obesity)

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.

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

Some treatments aim to control symptoms and reduce the risk of the abnormal cells developing into cancer. They lower the amount of acid the stomach produces.

Other treatments remove or treat the damaged areas in the lining of the food pipe.

Last reviewed: 
27 Nov 2019
  • Guidelines on the Diagnosis and Management of Barrett's Oesophagus
    RC Fitzgerald and others
    GUT, 2013, volume 0, pages1–36

  • Treatment for Barrett's oesophagus.
    JR Rees and others
    Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Jan 2010.

  • Monitoring the premalignant potential of Barrett's oesophagus
    D Graham and others
    Frontline Gastroenterology 2016 Volume 7 pages 316–322

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

  • Personal communication with specialist advisor.

Information and help