In eosinophilic esophagitis (e-o-sin-o-FILL-ik uh-sof-uh-JIE-tis), a type of white blood cell (eosinophil) builds up in the lining of the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach (esophagus). This buildup, which is a reaction to foods, allergens or acid reflux, can inflame or injure the esophageal tissue. Damaged esophageal tissue can lead to difficulty swallowing or cause food to get stuck when you swallow.
Eosinophilic esophagitis is a chronic immune system disease. It has been identified only in the past two decades, but is now considered a major cause of digestive system (gastrointestinal) illness. Research is ongoing and will likely lead to revisions in the diagnosis and treatment of eosinophilic esophagitis.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Food getting stuck in the esophagus after swallowing (impaction)
- Chest pain that is often centrally located and does not respond to antacids
- Persistent heartburn
- Upper abdominal pain
- No response to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) medication
- Backflow of undigested food (regurgitation)
- Difficulty feeding, in infants
- Difficulty eating, in children
- Abdominal pain
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Food getting stuck in the esophagus after swallowing (impaction)
- No response to GERD medication
- Failure to thrive (poor growth, malnutrition and weight loss)
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience chest pain, especially if you also have shortness of breath or jaw or arm pain. These may be symptoms of a heart attack.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience severe or frequent eosinophilic esophagitis symptoms. If you take over-the-counter medications for heartburn more than twice a week, see your doctor.
Eosinophils are a normal type of white blood cells present in your digestive tract. However, in eosinophilic esophagitis, you have an allergic reaction to an outside substance. The reaction may occur as follows:
- Reaction of the esophagus. The lining of your esophagus reacts to allergens, such as food or pollen.
- Multiplication of eosinophils. The eosinophils multiply in your esophagus and produce a protein that causes inflammation.
- Damage to esophagus. Inflammation can lead to scarring, narrowing and formation of excessive fibrous tissue in the lining of your esophagus.
- Dysphagia and impaction. You may have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or have food become stuck when you swallow (impaction).
- Additional symptoms. You may have other symptoms, such as chest pain or stomach pain.
There has been a significant increase in numbers of people diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis in the past decade. At first, researchers thought this was due to an increase in awareness among doctors and greater availability of tests. However, studies now suggest the disease is becoming increasingly common, parallel to the increase in asthma and allergy.
The following risk factors are associated with eosinophilic esophagitis:
- Climate. People who live in a cold or dry climate are more likely than those in other climates to be diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis.
- Season. You're more likely to be diagnosed between the spring and fall, probably because levels of pollen and other allergens are higher and people are more prone to be outdoors.
- Sex. Eosinophilic esophagitis is more common in males than in females.
- Family history. Doctors think eosinophilic esophagitis may run in the family (have a genetic component). If your family members have eosinophilic esophagitis, you have a greater chance of being diagnosed.
- Allergies and asthma. If you have food or environmental allergies, asthma, atopic dermatitis or a chronic respiratory disease, you're more likely to be diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis.
- Age. Originally, eosinophilic esophagitis was thought to be a childhood disease, but now it is known to be common in adults as well. The symptoms differ somewhat between children and adults.
In some people, eosinophilic esophagitis can lead to the following:
- Scarring and narrowing of the esophagus. This makes it difficult to swallow and more likely that you will have food get stuck.
- Damage to the esophagus. Because of inflammation of the esophagus, endoscopy can cause perforation or tears in the tissue that lines the esophagus. Tearing can also occur in connection with retching that some people experience when they get food stuck in the esophagus.
Your doctor will consider both your symptoms and test results to diagnose eosinophilic esophagitis. This will include determining whether you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Tests to diagnose eosinophilic esophagitis include:
- Upper endoscopy. Your doctor will use a long narrow tube (endoscope) containing a light and tiny camera and insert it through your mouth down the esophagus. The doctor will inspect the lining of your esophagus for inflammation and swelling, horizontal rings, vertical furrows, narrowing (strictures), and white spots. Some people with eosinophilic esophagitis will have an esophagus that looks normal.
- Biopsy. During an endoscopy, your doctor will perform a biopsy of your esophagus. A biopsy involves taking a small bit of tissue. Your doctor will likely take multiple samples from your esophagus and then examine the tissue under a microscope for eosinophils.
- Blood tests. If doctors suspect eosinophilic esophagitis, you may be given some additional tests to confirm the diagnosis and to begin to look for the sources of your allergic reaction (allergens). You may be given blood tests to look for higher than normal eosinophil counts or total immunoglobulin E levels, suggesting allergy.
Eosinophilic esophagitis is considered a chronic relapsing disease, meaning that most people will require ongoing treatment to control their symptoms. Treatment will involve one or more of the following:
Depending on your response to tests for food allergies, your doctor may recommend that you stop eating certain foods, such as dairy or wheat products, to relieve your symptoms and reduce inflammation. A more limited diet is sometimes required.
- Proton pump inhibitor (PPI). Your doctor will likely first prescribe an acid blocker such as a PPI. This treatment is the easiest to use, but most people's symptoms don't improve.
- Topical steroid. If you do not respond to the PPI, your doctor will then likely prescribe a topical steroid, such as fluticasone or budesonide, which is a liquid that is swallowed to treat eosinophilic esophagitis. This type of steroid is not absorbed into the bloodstream, so you are unlikely to have the typical side effects often associated with steroids.
If you experience severe narrowing (strictures) of your esophagus, your doctor may recommend dilation (stretching) to help make swallowing easier. Dilation may be used if steroids are not helpful. Or, dilation may be a choice to avoid ongoing use of medication.
If you often have heartburn, these lifestyle changes may help reduce the frequency or severity of symptoms:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess pounds put pressure on your abdomen, pushing up your stomach and causing acid to back up into your esophagus. If your weight is at a healthy level, work to maintain it. If you are overweight or obese, work to slowly lose weight — no more than 1 or 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a week. Ask your doctor for help in devising a weight-loss strategy that will work for you.
- Avoid foods and drinks that trigger heartburn. Common triggers, such as fatty or fried foods, tomato sauce, alcohol, chocolate, mint, garlic, onion, and caffeine, may make heartburn worse. Avoid foods you know will trigger your heartburn.
- Elevate the head of your bed. If you regularly experience heartburn at night or while trying to sleep, put gravity to work for you. Place wood or cement blocks under the feet of your bed so that the head end is raised by 6 to 9 inches (152 to 228 millimeters). If it's not possible to elevate your bed, insert a wedge between your mattress and box spring to elevate your body from the waist up.
No alternative medicine therapies have been proved to treat eosinophilic esophagitis. Still, some complementary and alternative therapies may provide some relief from heartburn or reflux symptoms when combined with your doctor's care. Talk to your doctor about what alternative treatments may be safe for you. Options may include:
- Herbal remedies. Herbal remedies sometimes used for heartburn or reflux symptoms include licorice, slippery elm, chamomile, marshmallow and others. Herbal remedies can have serious side effects, and they may interfere with medications. Ask your doctor about a safe dosage before beginning any herbal remedy.
- Relaxation therapies. Techniques to calm stress and anxiety may reduce signs and symptoms of heartburn or reflux. Ask your doctor about relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific points on your body. Limited evidence suggests it may help people with regurgitation and heartburn, but major studies have not proved a benefit. Ask your doctor whether acupuncture is safe for you.
If you think you have eosinophilic esophagitis, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. Your doctor may recommend you see a specialist in treating digestive diseases (gastroenterologist) or an allergist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
- Bring test results. If you are seeing a new specialist after you've had an endoscopy from another doctor, bring the results with you.
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
- Consider taking a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For eosinophilic esophagitis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- Do I need an endoscopy?
- Is my condition likely temporary or chronic?
- What is the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there any restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist? What will it cost?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing for me?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
- Should I schedule a follow-up visit?
In addition to the questions you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time later to cover points you want to address.
- What are your symptoms?
- When did you first notice them?
- Have they been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- Do your symptoms wake you up at night?
- Are your symptoms worse after meals or after lying down?
- Do you have difficulty swallowing?
- Have you ever had food get stuck while you are swallowing?
- Does food or sour material ever come up in the back of your throat?
- Do you have chest pain or stomach pain?
- Have you had an esophageal dilation?
- Have you been treated with a topical steroid or food elimination diet?
- Have you gained or lost weight?
- Do you experience nausea or vomiting?
- Are your symptoms worse at certain times of the year?
- Do you have asthma or any chronic respiratory disease?
- Do you have any allergies to foods or to anything in the environment, such as pollen?
- Does anyone in your family have allergies?
- Have you tried taking antacid or anti-reflux medication? What was the result?
If you're a parent of a young child, the doctor may also ask if your child has trouble feeding or has been diagnosed with failure to thrive.