American College of Gastroenterology
Advancing Gastroenterology, Improving Patient Care

Barrett’s Esophagus


  • What is Barrett’s Esophagus (BE)?

    In order to understand Barrett’s esophagus, it is useful to understand the normal appearance of the esophagus. In the normal esophagus, the tissue lining appears pale pink and smooth. These flat square cells, called “squamous” (Latin for square) cells, make up the normal lining of the esophagus. See Images 1 and 2.

    Image 1 Image 2

    In contrast, Barrett’s esophagus is a salmon-colored lining in the esophagus, made up of cells that are similar to cells found in the small intestine and are called “specialized intestinal metaplasia.”

    Figure 1 shows what Barrett’s esophagus looks like at endoscopy (a small flexible scope with a camera in its tip).

    Figure 1

    Barrett's Esophagus. © 2004 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

    The reason Barrett’s esophagus is important is because people who have it have a small increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. Barrett’s esophagus and heartburn symptoms are associated with a specific type of esophageal cancer called “esophageal adenocarcinoma.”

  • How Common is Barrett’s Esophagus?

    Barrett’s esophagus is more commonly seen in people who have frequent, persistent heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD symptoms include heartburn (burning under your breast bone) that may wake you up at night, occur after meals or in between, and may temporarily improve with antacids. Acid regurgitation, or the experience of sour or bitter-tasting fluid coming back up into your mouth, is also a GERD symptom. Some people do not have any of these symptoms and are still at risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus.

Risk Factors

  • What are the Risk Factors for Barrett’s Esophagus?

    There are a few known risk factors for BE, such as chronic GERD (as much as weekly symptoms for 5 or more years), age >50, male biologic sex, white race, obesity, family history of BE, esophageal cancer in first degree relative (parent, child, sibling). It is important for men and women to consider screening endoscopy if they have reflux plus any 3 of the above risk factors.

  • What is the Risk of Getting Esophageal Cancer?

    We now know that patients with Barrett’s esophagus have a low risk of esophageal cancer. A person with Barrett’s esophagus has less than a 1 in 200 chance per year of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma. The overall risk of cancer may increase as the years go by, but more than 90% of people with Barrett’s esophagus WILL NOT develop cancer. Therefore, Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that you need to know about and take care of if you have it. However, the vast majority of patients with Barrett’s will never get cancer.

  • When Should You See a Doctor about Barrett’s Esophagus?

    You should ask a doctor about Barrett’s esophagus if you have the risk factors listed earlier (male sex, age 50 or over, obesity, tobacco smoking, positive family history of BE, esophageal cancer in first degree relative, white race, GERD symptoms of longer than 5 years’ duration). If you have alarm symptoms such as trouble swallowing, losing weight without trying, blood in your stool, vomiting, persistent symptoms despite medical therapy, or new chest pain, you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor and have an endoscopic examination.


  • What Type of Tests are Needed to Evaluate Barrett’s Esophagus?

    Endoscopy is the test of choice for Barrett’s esophagus. During endoscopy, a thin tube with a light and camera on the end is run through your mouth, down your throat and into your stomach (Figure 2). Biopsies, meaning small pieces of tissue can be collected to look at under the microscope. In Barrett’s, tissue is the issue. Tissue, showing a certain abnormal cell type (Figure 3), is necessary to make the diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus, and is one of the keys to management of Barrett’s.

    Noninvasive testing options, like swallowable capsule sponge devices combined with blood tests, are now a possible new way to get tissue samples and look for Barrett’s (Figure 3). This option is not yet available commercially, as large population studies in the USA have not been published yet. We hope this information will be released soon and improve patient access to minimally invasive testing.

    Figure 2
    Upper Endoscopy image
    Figure 3
    Barrett's esophagus detection devices

    Nonendoscopic Barrett's esophagus detection devices. (a-c) capsule cytology sponge devices. (d and e) Retracted and inflated balloon cytology device.

    Figure 4
    Barretts esophagus grading

    Endoscopic view of Barrett’s esophagus, the areas marked C2 and M6 demonstrate Barrett’s esophagus.

Treatment Options

  • What are the Treatment Options for Barrett’s Esophagus?

    Generally, doctors treat the symptoms of GERD, not Barrett’s esophagus specifically. Barrett’s is an acquired disorder, meaning it develops over time and is not present at birth. It is usually diagnosed around age 60, although we estimate that half of people with Barrett’s esophagus have it by age 40.

    Treatment for GERD symptoms are listed in the GERD section of this web page and elsewhere on the ACG Web Book for patients. Generally, this will include antacids, histamine receptor antagonists and proton pump inhibitors. The large majority of patients with Barrett’s esophagus will be treated with a proton pump inhibitor. Anti reflux surgery is only considered as an option if patients require it for management of GERD. It is not used as a way to reduce risk of BE because studies did not show it could make an impact in that way.

    The proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) include: esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Prilosec), pantoprazole (Protonix), rabeprazole (Aciphex), omeprazole powder (Zegerid), and dexlansoprazole (Dexilant). With regard to the optimal way to take a proton pump inhibitor, for most brands it is suggested that you take your medication half an hour before a meal. Most other pills can be taken along with PPI’s, except for antacids, Carafate®, and Questran®. Antacids, Carafate® and Questran® bind almost everything they come in contact with, so if you are on these medicines, you should not be taking them at the same time as other medicines in the first place.

    PPIs work by turning off the pumps in the lining of your stomach that pump acid into the stomach. Eating food 20 to 60 minutes after taking your pill on an empty stomach activates millions of these acid pumps which are then turned off by the medication. This is the key for the best dosing of a PPI.

Barrett's Types and Management

  • What are the different types of Barrett’s you can have, and the possible ways of treating them?

    During endoscopy, your doctor will get multiple biopsies every 1 to 2 cm (one half to one inch) along the length of your Barrett’s esophagus segment. How the biopsies look on a microscope slide influences your management. It is important to know that to be diagnosed with Barrett’s, there has to be a minimum of 1 cm of abnormal appearing mucosa for the doctor to biopsy. Anything less than that is considered to be within the range of normal for the area.

    The key to the management of Barrett’s esophagus is the level of dysplasia that the biopsies show. “Dysplasia” is how much precancerous changes the cells have. “No Dysplasia” means that the Barrett’s cells show no precancerous changes. Low-grade dysplasia means that the cells show some of the early characteristics of cancer. High-grade dysplasia means that the cells show more advanced changes of cancer. The worse the dysplasia, the higher the risk that the Barrett’s will go on to cancer.

    All of our cells are programmed to die. We are constantly making new cells while old cells slough off. For example, dandruff is old dead scalp cells that have dried up and flaked off. Just like your skin on the outside of your body, the lining of the esophagus is skin on the inside of your body. Cells keep their DNA in their nucleus. Cancer is DNA that has lost control of how fast the cells divide, or how quickly they die. In cancer, cells grow and grow without dying.

    When cells are changing from normal to cancer, they go through the steps of dysplasia outlined above.

    No Dysplasia
    If a diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus is made, ideally there should be NO dysplasia. See Image 3 and Figure 5.

    Image 3 Figure 5

    No Dysplasia. © 2004 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

    In biopsies with no dysplasia, the nuclei are small, organized and located at the base (bottom) of the Barrett’s cell (yellow arrow inserted).

    Most people with Barrett’s esophagus and no dysplasia will need to undergo future endoscopies to assure there is no progression of the condition. When the next endoscopy occurs is usually based on recommendations by groups of experts whose opinion is endorsed The American College of Gastroenterology. Follow up endoscopy for Barrett’s without dysplasia is usually recommended at 3-5 years, but your doctor will help decide what is most appropriate for you. Treatment is not recommended in this population.

    Low Grade Dysplasia
    If biopsies are found to have low-grade dysplasia (Image 4 and Figure 6), where the nuclei are still small but somewhat disorganized, several things should happen: First, the doctor should have a second pathologist also look at your biopsies, because low-grade dysplasia can be a hard diagnosis for a pathologist to make correctly, and sometimes there is disagreement among pathologists that might require yet another opinion to resolve.

    Image 4 Figure 6

    Low Grade Dysplasia. © 2004 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

    If the diagnosis of low-grade dysplasia is confirmed, the patient and physician can discuss the risks and benefits of surveillance (no treatment but close monitoring) versus treatment. The most common way of treating these patients is with a technique called radiofrequency ablation. In radiofrequency ablation treatments, heat is applied via a catheter to the precancerous tissue to kill those cells so that normal healthy cells can grow there instead. It is performed endoscopically, and is a day procedure with no hospital admission required. Studies demonstrate that these treatments can lower the patient’s chance of ever getting cancer. Another acceptable option if low-grade dysplasia is found is to continue to perform endoscopies to monitor the condition, without doing any ablation treatments. If this option is selected, the repeat endoscopy is usually performed every 6 months in the first year, and then every year after that.

    In some instances, pathologists are uncertain if the tissue sample is truly low grade dysplasia or inflammation masquerading as dysplasia. These patients are called indefinite for dysplasia. For these patients, it is really important that they improve their reflux management with either higher doses or frequency of PPIs, and have a repeat scope in 6 months to reassess the area. Based on the repeat scope results, the patient may require management or surveillance as outlined above in Low Grade Dysplasia or No Dysplasia group.

    High Grade Dysplasia
    High-grade dysplasia (Image 5, Figure 7) is thought to be the stage that occurs before esophageal cancer. However, high-grade dysplasia can regress to low-grade dysplasia if reflux injury is present and creating a red herring. If diagnosed with high-grade dysplasia the biopsies should be examined again by a pathologist who specializes in diseases of the esophagus to confirm the diagnosis.

    Image 5 Figure 7

    High Grade Dysplasia. © 2004 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

    If a diagnosis of high-grade dysplasia is confirmed, it is recommended that the patient undergo endoscopic treatments to get rid of the Barrett’s esophagus. As above, the most used treatment in high-grade dysplasia is radiofrequency ablation. However, there are newer options available that may be used, depending on the expert center you are referred to (e.g. cryotherapy). Surgical removal of the esophagus is no longer performed for high-grade dysplasia.

    Barrett’s esophagus is best managed by doctors with an interest in this disease, including gastroenterologists, esophagus surgeons, and gastroenterology pathologists. Endoscopic treatments (performed by gastroenterologists at expert BE centers) are the main way to manage Barrett’s Esophagus. Speaking to your doctor(s) will assist you in deciding what is the optimal treatment for you.

Author(s) and Publication Date(s)

Ijeoma A. Azodo, MD, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL and Yvonne Romero, MD, FACG, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN – Published January 2006.

Nicholas J. Shaheen, MD, MPH, FACG, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC – Updated June 2016.

Scott L. Gabbard, MD, FACG, Cleveland Clinic and Milli Gupta, MD, University of Calgary – Updated May 2024.

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