We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is the Esophagus?

A. Pasbjerg
Updated Feb 29, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGeek is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGeek, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The esophagus is the portion of the digestive system that leads from the mouth to the stomach. Sometimes called the gullet, it is a muscular passageway that begins at the throat, or pharynx. Located between the trachea and the spine, it passes down through the diaphragm and ends at the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscular ring opening into the upper end of the stomach.

The primary function of the esophagus is to carry ingested food and liquids to the stomach. When a person eats or drinks and swallows, the sphincter at the top of the structure, which is normally closed, opens and allows the material to pass through. The muscles in the walls of the passage then contract, pushing it downward; this process is facilitated by the mucus produced by glands along the esophagus to keep it moist. It then passes through the lower sphincter, which also relaxes and opens, and enters into the stomach.

Sometimes the lower esophageal sphincter opens at times other than when food is being swallowed, and allows acid from the stomach to splash up into the esophagus. This is known as acid reflux and typically causes heartburn, a burning sensation in the lower chest that is uncomfortable but not dangerous. When acid reflux becomes chronic, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is a fairly common disorder and should be treated, as over time it can cause damage. Treatment typically includes medications such as antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors.

People with GERD may develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. In these cases, cells in the lower esophagus change and are replaced with cells like those in the stomach and intestines. These cells are tolerant of the acid from the stomach, which helps them resist the damage from the reflux. While this may reduce the person’s discomfort from heartburn, the condition is a cause for concern, as the Barrett’s cells can sometimes lead to a form of cancer known as adenocarcinoma.

In addition to adenocarcinoma, the other main type of esophageal cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer is often associated with use of tobacco or alcohol, though it can have other causes. Both types of cancer usually cause pain and difficulty swallowing, which may lead to weight loss in patients. Treatments can include endoscopic therapy to remove localized lesions or laser therapy and chemotherapy to destroy tumor cells.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
A. Pasbjerg
By A. Pasbjerg
Andrea Pasbjerg, a WiseGeek contributor, holds an MBA from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her business background helps her to create content that is both informative and practical, providing readers with valuable insights and strategies for success in the business world.
Discussion Comments
By anon985591 — On Jan 17, 2015

GERD / reflux could be mistaken for eosinophilic oesophagitis, a condition with similar symptoms of discomfort/pain, often with dysphagia. Thought to be caused by immune response to allergens either ingested or inhaled - food, pollen or mold spores.

By anon329932 — On Apr 12, 2013

I had acid reflux in which I was on prescription medicine. When I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and started using a CPAP machine at night, my reflux went totally away.

By anon266257 — On May 04, 2012

I just learned about the digestive system in science.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 05, 2011

@B707 - My mother takes an anti-acid medication for her GERD condition. Unfortunately, the medication is expensive and she has trouble affording it. I'm going to suggest to her that she take a good look at the food she eats and figure out which ones cause problems with her esophagus.

Of course, I think that she should talk to her doctor, before she makes any permanent changes in her treatment.

By B707 — On Jun 03, 2011

@VivAnne - You're right on! GERD is a condition that lasts your whole life. I was diagnosed with it about a year ago. I have medication, but I often forget to take it because you're supposed to take it about a half hour before meals.

I'm trying to figure out which foods and spices cause acid reflux, so I can change my diet and avoid foods that irritate my esophagus.

I wonder why the ring opening from the esophagus to the stomach opens when you aren't swallowing food and lets stomach acid into the esophagus. I guess I'll have to ask my doctor that one.

By malmal — On Jun 02, 2011

Wow, I've never heard of anything like Barrets esophagus. That sounds like a case of the body adapting to meet a challenge or condition that it's dealing with for a long time. The fact that it can cause cancer eventually means it's a bad thing, of course, but I wonder if whatever makes the body react to acid reflux by converting the lower cells of the esophagus to the same types as those of the stomach could be used for good in health treatments? Very interesting.

By VivAnne — On Jun 02, 2011

@Malka - It sounds like you're talking about GERD -- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease -- rather than just the occasional case of heartburn. GERD is a life-long kind of condition in which you get acid reflux a lot -- daily, multiple times a day in fact.

Because reflux happens so often, the answer to your question is yes. Yes, GERD can cause permanent damage to the esophagus.

You can start medication to help treat the acid reflux so that your throat can heal up, but as soon as you quit doing the treatment that stopped the acid reflux and let it heal it will just get injured again. GERD is an incurable and lifelong condition, and usually the best way to treat the acid reflux and accompanying problems is to make lifestyle changes to avoid eating foods that cause flare ups.

If you were just talking about heartburn, on the other hand, don't worry -- one or two encounters with a bit of refluxed stomach acid isn't going to hurt your esophagus. Your saliva has something in it called bicarbonate that neutralizes the stomach acids to some degree.

By Malka — On Jun 02, 2011

I read somewhere that acid reflux burns the esophagus with stomach acid. Is that true? If so, is it doing any permanent damage? Burning your insides sounds like serious business!

A. Pasbjerg
A. Pasbjerg
Andrea Pasbjerg, a WiseGeek contributor, holds an MBA from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her business background helps her to create content that is both informative and practical, providing readers with valuable insights and strategies for success in the business world.
WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.