By Jamell Andrews
Esophageal cells are different from those that line the stomach. In a normal esophagus, pinkish-white tissues called squamous epithelium line the tube. Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the normal tissue lining has been replaced by abnormal red-colored epithelium, which is referred to as specialized intestinal metaplasia. Essentially, these cells are intestinal cells rather than esophageal cells.
Barrett’s esophagus can only be diagnosed through biopsy, however, because the specialized intestinal metaplasia resembles normal stomach tissue. The reason for this is that the Barrett’s esophagus is located just above the border between the esophagus and the stomach, and it can be very difficult to distinguish between the different types of cells with the naked eye.
It is interesting that the intestinal cells actually seem to reduce symptoms of GERD in people who suffer from acid reflux. It is believed that this occurs because the intestinal cells are naturally protected from acid. The downside to this is that the changes in the normal tissue lining are believed to contribute to the development of cancer of the lower esophagus. White males are particularly affected by this disease, though the reasons why this is so remain unclear.
Being diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus does not necessarily mean that one will develop cancer, however. In fact, cancer only develops in approximately 1-5% of people who have been diagnosed with the disease.
Since Barrett’s esophagus develops in people who suffer from chronic acid reflux, it is important to understand the symptoms of this disease. The most common symptoms associated with Barrett’s esophagus include the following:
- Black, tarry stools
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing food or beverages
- Heartburn (frequent)
- Vomiting blood
To make this disease a bit more complicated, however, you should understand that symptoms do not always exist with Barrett’s esophagus. When they are present, they may be vague and might not cause any immediate alarm, so the best rule of thumb is to keep regular appointments with your physician if you suffer from any degree of regular acid reflux. This way, your health care provider can keep an eye on your health and will have a better chance to catch a potentially serious problem with early onset.
Treatment and Risk Factors
At this time, there are no specific medications designed to treat Barrett’s esophagus, but there are some things patients can do to reduce acid reflux, thus lowering their chances of developing this condition. Patients should avoid alcohol and tobacco; reduce their consumption of fatty foods, carbonated beverages, and citrus drinks; lose weight (if overweight, of course); eat smaller meals; and try to sleep with the head elevated a few inches.
The primary risk factors that are associated with the development of Barrett’s esophagus are:
- Being male
- Being Caucasian or Hispanic
- Being an older adult (but Barrett’s esophagus can occur at any age)
- Suffering from chronic heartburn or acid reflux
If you are concerned that you may have Barrett’s esophagus, talk to your doctor. He or she can provide you with a thorough examination and can also discuss your risk factors for potentially developing this disease.