Barrett’s Oesophagus (Barrett’s Mucosa)

Barrett’s oesophagus or Barrett’s mucosa is a condition which occurs in approximately 10% of patients who suffer with long-term acid reflux.


It is thought to be a protective mechanism against the pain of the reflux. It is not clear why some people develop it and many others do not.

Does it matter? Not really, except that it is confusing. This condition would be just a medical curiosity except that it causes cancer in a small number of sufferers. That is why people get worried about it. For most people, however, it causes no problems at all.

What is Barrett's Oesophagus?

Normally, the oesophagus (or gullet) is lined by layers of short, squat cells, called squamous cells. This multi-layered lining is similar to the skin. It protects the oesophagus from injury when swallowing food. It has a very pale pink colour.

‘Reflux’ occurs when juices from the stomach and small bowel flow back up into the gullet repeatedly, over an extended period. This exposure to acid and bile can injure its lining. This injury is called oesophagitis.

In some cases, when the gullet heals, the normal squamous lining is replaced by cells that resemble the stomach or intestine; a process called metaplasia or change in cell shape. It is this abnormal lining, which has a much deeper salmon red colour, that is called Barrett’s Oesophagus.

The most important message is that even if you have Barrett’s disease, the likelihood you will ever get cancer is very low. Indeed, the lifetime cancer risk for people with this condition is no more than 5-10%. The vast majority of people die of something else.

Who get's Barrett's Oesophagus?

One in 10 people in the UK with a history of heartburn are estimated to have this condition. This means that about half a million people are affected in the United Kingdom, although most people are simply not aware of it.

It turns out that the more aggressive the reflux is, the higher the likelihood of developing Barrett’s esophagus.

What is dysplasia?

In a small number of people, further changes occur in the cells within the gullet lining. This change is called dysplasia. Dysplasia is the first step towards the development of cancer.

Dysplasia can be detected by examining biopsies (small samples of tissue) taken from the inner lining of the oesophagus under the microscope. These samples are collected during endoscopy check ups. It can occur many years before cancer develops. That is why many people with Barrett’s disease have these regular check-ups.

What type of cancer develops?

There are two types of oesophageal cancer. One is called squamous cell cancer. The other is called adenocarcinoma. Patients with Barrett’s disease develop adenocarcinoma. It is also sometimes referred to as ‘heartburn cancer’. The charity heartburn Cancer Awareness and Support supports people with this type of cancer.

Barrett's Oesophagus Symptoms

The symptoms are actually those of acid reflux rather than the Barrett’s.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Heartburn
  • Chest pain
  • Regurgitating food or acid into the mouth
  • Choking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Cough
  • Hoarse voice

The real causes of symptoms in Barrett’s Oesophagus

The symptoms people suffer are usually due to one of three things:

  • acid reflux which is not completely treated
  • a newly developing cancer or pre-cancerous abnormality
  • an unrelated cause which might need to be investigated

If you have symptoms, what should you do?

There is no doubt that if you know that you have Barrett’s oesophagus or Barrett’s Mucosa and have on-going symptoms, you should consult your doctor.

  • The doctor may try to improve your acid suppression medicine
  • Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist for an endoscopy. Endoscopy is currently the only test that can reliably detect if a pre-cancerous abnormality or early cancer is developing.
  • Remember that pre-cancerous changes and early cancers can now be effectively treated without having major surgery. For more information click here
  • There are many unrelated conditions which can mimic reflux. Honestly, there is no point writing the list here. If you are worried, go and see a good doctor!

I went to my GP but I still have symptoms. What should I do?

If you have on-going symptoms, here are some things you might try:

Change your diet

  • Don’t eat for at least 2 hours before going to bed
  • Avoid triggering foods such as fatty meals and coffee

Try a simple antacid

  • These medicines neutralize stomach acid. They will give short term relief only but if you are in pain, they can be effective instantaneously


Alginates contain an antacid but also have the extra benefit of the alginate coat which protects the lining of the oesophagus from the acid or bile which is coming up from the stomach.

Take your proton pump inhibitor twice daily

  • Taking this medicine twice daily is much more effective than taking it only once a day
  • You will get the maximum benefit if you take it 30-60 minutes before breakfast and supper
  • For example, taking 20mg of omeprazole twice a day before breakfast and supper is far better than taking 20mg or even 40mg just before going to bed

Try a herbal remedy

  • Old wives’ tales sometimes carry an element of truth. Although people with Barrett’s tend to have bad reflux, they sometimes get significant and unexpected relief by trying simple remedies

See a specialist

  • If your symptoms are new or not responding to medicines quickly, it is important to have a specialist review. Sometimes, a change in symptoms is a warning sign of something more serious.

Cancer Risk In Barrett’s Oesophagus or Barrett’s Mucosa

You are reading this page because you want to know the esophageal cancer risk in people with Barrett’s oesophagus (BE). Most websites do not actually state the risk. They just tell you that the BE is pre-cancerous.

Large numbers of people who have this condition believe it is just a matter of time until they will get oesophageal cancer, particularly the type called esophageal adenocarcinoma. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Let me reassure you. You know that there are only two things for certain in life – death and taxes. You will, of course, die one day (hopefully in a very long time from now!). But, even if you have Barrett’s oesophagus, it is very unlikely that you will die from cancer of the oesophagus. In fact, despite having Barrett’s oesophagus it is at least 10-20 times as likely you will eventually die from something other than oesophageal cancer!

The real risk of Oesophageal Cancer in Barrett’s Oesophagus

Over the last few years, large numbers of scientific studies have focused on assessing the cancer risk associated with BE. Since 2010, three big studies have shown that the likelihood of getting oesophageal cancer is no more than 0.36% per year. This means that the average person with Barrett’s would need to live for 300 years before they got cancer!

Reducing the Risk

The risk of getting cancer if you have BE is very low, but it is still quite a bit higher than the general population. Does anything reduce that risk? Is there anything one can do to minimise the risk?


There is increasing evidence that a diet high in fruit and vegetables protects against many illnesses including cancer. This holds true for oesophageal cancer. Heavy food including red meat might increase cancer risk although this is by no means certain. It seems sensible to limit the amount of red meat in your diet, perhaps to no more than once or twice a week.

Acid Reflux

Although you might intuitively think that foods which increase acid reflux , and by extension, more severe acid reflux, increase the risk of cancer, there is actually very little evidence to support this! In fact, many people who do eventually get oesophageal cancer have never even suffered with heartburn.

Aspirin and NSAIDs

Non steroidalanti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Nurofen, diclofenac etc might decrease the risk of getting cancer. There is no evidence that paracetamol decreases this risk.

(Please remember that these medicines also have side effects. You should only take medicines after discussing the risks and benefits with a doctor. If you are thinking of taking these medicines, please either see your GP or one of our experts.

Many people think that aspirin might reduce cancer risk. It is not proven, although the large AspECT trial is on-going to find out whether this is true. See below for more details.


A very large group of people with Barrett’s esophagus has been followed for many years in the USA. An interesting finding in this group is that those who used multivitamins every day appear to have a 60% lower risk of developing cancer.

This needs to be confirmed by other researchers because other studies have suggested that vitamin supplements are not entirely free of risk!


There is a very large study going on in the UK called the AspECT trial. It is comparing the use of acid suppression medicine (esomeprazole) and aspirin to see if either of these medicines reduce the oesophogial cancer risk in BE sufferers. Over 2,500 people are taking part in this study. The results will not be known until around 2020.

So how do I reduce my own cancer risk?

If you want to reduce your cancer risk, you should eat a sensible diet, high in fruit and vegetables.

It is not clear whether you should avoid reflux causing foods although it seems to be a good idea.

How about keeping an eye on the problem by reviewing your situation with a specialist? That way you can keep up to date with the latest research and medical knowledge. We offer endoscopic surveillance together with advanced endoscopic imaging.

We can also advise you on some of the genetic risks, call us for a private consultation on 020 7183 7965.

Please tell our staff that you want to see an international expert in cancer risk in Barrett’s oesophagus. We will ensure you see the right person.

Help Yourself

There are quite a few ways you can help yourself if you have Barrett’s disease.

These include:

  • Reducing your acid reflux
  • Diet
  • Support groups
  • Raising awareness

Reducing your acid reflux

There is no proven link between the severity of acid reflux and the risk of developing cancer. Nonetheless, it would seem sensible to try and reduce the amount of reflux you suffer. At the very least, it will help you feel better!

Most people with Barrett’s oesophagus have rather bad reflux and need to take proton pump inhibitor medicines regularly. Twice daily works better than once daily and taking them half an hour before meals works best of all.

If you get breakthrough symptoms at night, a dose of a H2 receptor antagonist (eg Ranitidine) before you go to bed may help you.


A number of diets are available for you to think about

  • Firstly, consider a diet which reduces your acid reflux.
  • Secondly, a diet which is high in fruits and vegetables reduces cancer risk (see here as an example fruits and vegetables reduces cancer .) If you search the web, you will realize that the same diets also reduce heart disease and stroke risk!
  • Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. Alcohol is implicated in both acid reflux and oesophageal cancer

Support Groups

There are a number of charities around the UK which are run by sufferers for sufferers. Here are links to a few of them

  • Heartburn Cancer Awareness and Support (H-CAS). This charity has an on-line patient forum.
  • Barrett’s Oesophagus Campaign (BOC) This charity has an on-line patient forum.
  • Fighting Oesophageal Reflux Together (FORT)

Raising Awareness

Many sufferers are concerned that their GP or pharmacist knows very little about Barrett’s oesophagus. It is the fourth commonest cause of cancer death in men in the UK but so few people seem to be aware of it.

If you would like to get involved, here are some resources you might find useful. Why not contact one of the patient charities and offer to help publicise Barrett’s oesophagus in your local area? Or you could start up your own local or on-line support group.

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