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Esophagitis

Esophagitis is the irritation and inflammation of the lining of your esophagus, or food pipe. Because the lining of the esophagus is sensitive, many things can cause swelling and irritation.

Causes of esophagitis

These are some possible causes of irritation and inflammation:

  • Stomach acid in the food pipe. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), stomach acid leaks backward into your esophagus. If this occurs on a regular basis, it may cause esophagitis.

  • Chronic vomiting

  • Medications, such as aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs

  • Medical procedures, such as radiation therapy.

  • Infections that weaken your immune system

Esophagitis can have serious consequences that affect your quality of life. If left untreated, esophagitis may develop into a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. This may increase your risk for esophageal cancer.

Symptoms

You may experience these symptoms with esophagitis:

  • Sore throat

  • Feeling that something is stuck in your throat

  • Sores in your mouth

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Difficulty or painful swallowing

  • Heartburn

Who’s at risk

You may be at risk for esophagitis unrelated to an infection if you:

  • Are pregnant

  • Smoke

  • Are obese

  • Are an elderly adult

  • Consume a lot of alcohol, coffee, chocolate, fatty foods, or spicy foods

  • Use certain medicines, including NSAID pain relievers, nitrates, and beta blockers 

  • Have a spinal cord injury

  • Have had radiation therapy for chest tumors

  • Swallow medicine with too little water or get a pill stuck in your throat

  • Have scleroderma, an autoimmune disease

Diagnosis

To make a diagnosis, your health care provider may do these things:

  • Take a medical history and do a physical exam.

  • Order an upper GI series. For this test, your health care provider will take X-ray images of your esophagus and stomach as you swallow a barium fluid that shows any problem areas.

  • Order an endoscopy. This is an outpatient procedure in which your health care provider uses a tiny camera on a thin, flexible tube to look inside your esophagus for signs of esophagitis.

  • Do an esophageal pH test for stomach acid. Your health care provider will insert sensors or thin wires during an endoscopy to gather information over 1 to 3 days. This may help your health care provider find out about stomach acid that may be appearing in the esophagus.

Treatment 

Treatment for esophagitis depends on the cause. These are possible treatments:

  • Therapy for the cause of your esophagitis. Talking with a professional to help eliminate stress from your life may help esophagitis.

  • Acid-blocking medicines

  • Additional medications. Your health care provider may prescribe drugs to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter. This keeps stomach acid in your stomach.

  • Lifestyle changes. If your esophagitis is caused by GERD, your health care provider might offer these recommendations:

    • Raise the head of your bed so that you sleep with your head slightly above your feet.

    • Change your eating habits to limit acid or irritation of the esophagus. This might mean switching to a bland diet for a while and avoiding spicy foods, citrus foods, chocolate, fatty foods, and caffeine.

    • Stop smoking.

    • Avoid or limit alcohol.

    • Maintain a healthy weight.

    • Become more active.

  • Surgery. Your health care provider may recommend surgery if you have bleeding or narrowing of the esophagus. It also might be recommended if it is needed to control the spread of precancerous cells.

Complications

Problems that can occur with esophagitis include:

  • Difficulty swallowing or eating

  • Bleeding

  • Narrowing of the esophagus

  • In about 1 in 50 adults, precancerous changes in the lining of the esophagus that lead to esophageal cancer

Preventing and living with esophagitis

Esophagitis can return if you do not make some changes in the way you live. Living with this condition means following your health care provider’s recommendations on lifestyle changes and medication use.

When to call the health care provider

Contact your health care provider if your symptoms return.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 4/22/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.