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Esophageal varices are enlarged veins in the lower esophagus. They’re often due to obstructed blood flow through the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestine and spleen to the liver.
Esophageal varices are abnormal, enlarged veins in the tube that connects the throat and stomach (esophagus). This condition occurs most often in people with serious liver diseases.
Esophageal varices develop when normal blood flow to the liver is blocked by a clot or scar tissue in the liver. To go around the blockages, blood flows into smaller blood vessels that aren’t designed to carry large volumes of blood. The vessels can leak blood or even rupture, causing life-threatening bleeding.
A number of drugs and medical procedures can help prevent and stop bleeding from esophageal varices.
Esophageal varices usually don’t cause signs and symptoms unless they bleed. Signs and symptoms of bleeding esophageal varices include:
Your doctor might suspect varices if you have signs of liver disease, including:
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have signs or symptoms that worry you. If you’ve been diagnosed with liver disease, ask your doctor about your risk of esophageal varices and how you can reduce your risk of these complications. Ask your doctor about an endoscopy procedure to check for esophageal varices.
If you’ve been diagnosed with esophageal varices, your doctor is likely to instruct you to watch for signs of bleeding. Bleeding esophageal varices are an emergency. Call 911 or your local emergency services right away if you have bloody vomit or bloody stools.
Esophageal varices sometimes form when blood flow to your liver is blocked, most often by scar tissue in the liver caused by liver disease. The blood flow begins to back up, increasing pressure within the large vein (portal vein) that carries blood to your liver.
This pressure (portal hypertension) forces the blood to seek other pathways through smaller veins, such as those in the lowest part of the esophagus. These thin-walled veins balloon with the added blood. Sometimes the veins can rupture and bleed.
Causes of esophageal varices include:
Although many people with advanced liver disease develop esophageal varices, most won’t have bleeding. Varices are more likely to bleed if you have:
The most serious complication of esophageal varices is bleeding. Once you have had a bleeding episode, your risk of another bleeding episode greatly increases. If you lose enough blood, you can go into shock, which can lead to death.
Currently, no treatment can prevent the development of esophageal varices in people with cirrhosis. While beta blocker drugs are effective in preventing bleeding in many people who have esophageal varices, they do not prevent esophageal varices from forming.
If you’ve been diagnosed with liver disease, ask your doctor about strategies to avoid liver disease complications. To keep your liver healthy:
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