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Esophagitis refers to swelling or inflammation of the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that connects the posterior portion of the oral cavity or mouth to the stomach. Esophagitis is commonly caused by irritating stomach acids which can migrate to the esophagus because of acid reflux disease. In acid reflux disease, the lower esophageal sphincter cannot work effectively to prevent backflow of stomach acids into the esophagus and throat.
Occasionally, other factors, such as ingesting irritating medications, can contribute to this condition. Excessive or prolonged vomiting, vitamin C supplementation and chest radiation may also promote the disorder. Sometimes, patients who have weakened immune function may encounter esophagitis. In these individuals, the condition is often caused by the presence of infection. Certain infections may predispose the patient to an increase in the inflammatory process, including inflammation of the esophagus.
Typically, symptoms include painful and difficult swallowing, oral lesions, and perhaps heartburn. The patient may notice redness and sores in the back of the throat, and a strong breath odor may be present. In addition, excessive saliva may be noticed because patients with esophagitis often are unable to effectively swallow their own saliva. This is more pronounced in elderly or extremely ill patients.
Generally, treatment depends on what is causing the condition. If acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux, disease is to blame, the physician may recommend the use of a medication to reduce or inhibit the production of stomach acid. When less stomach acid is produced, it is less likely to migrate to the esophagus and cause irritation. If an infection is causing inflammation of the esophagus, antibiotics may be prescribed. Often, when the infection is resolved, esophageal inflammation will also resolve.
If symptoms of esophageal inflammation and irritation are not treated, complications may arise. Complications, such as difficulty swallowing, may occur. Difficulty in swallowing due to an inflamed esophagus may be so severe that the patient may be unable to eat or drink. This may ultimately lead to dehydration and malnutrition. Esophagitis may also contribute to esophageal scarring. Scarring of the esophagus may promote strictures that can severely limit the patient's ability to swallow medication or food.
Rarely, untreated inflammation of the esophagus caused by chronic acid reflux may contribute to a condition called Barrett's esophagitis, or Barrett's esophagus. This condition may predispose the patient to esophageal cancer. Patients who experience acid reflux disease and symptoms of chronic heartburn should get treatment to decrease the risk of Barrett's and therefore lessen the incidence of cancer.