Esophageal Varices

What are esophageal varices?

Esophageal varices are swollen veins in the lower part of your esophagus. They are caused by increased pressure in the blood vessels of your liver. As the pressure builds in your liver, the pressure also builds in the veins in your esophagus.

What increases my risk for esophageal varices?

  • Liver disease, such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, and fatty liver

  • Long-term conditions, such as pancreatitis, sarcoidosis, and Budd-Chiari syndrome

  • Cancers, such as lymphoma, leukemia, and cancers of the liver or pancreas

  • Parasite infections, such as schistosomiasis

What are the signs and symptoms of esophageal varices?

You may have any of the following symptoms based on the cause of your esophageal varices:

  • Weakness and fatigue

  • Abdominal pain

  • Faster heartbeat than usual

  • Faster breathing than usual

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

  • Cool, clammy skin

  • Swollen abdomen and feet

How are esophageal varices diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask about your health history and examine you. He may use an endoscope to see the walls of your esophagus and upper intestines. An endoscope is a bendable metal tube with a light and tiny camera on the end. It is placed down your throat and moved into your stomach and intestines.

How are esophageal varices treated?

The goal of treatment is to prevent the varices from breaking open and bleeding. You may be given medicines to decrease the pressure in your liver or to reduce stomach acid. You may need to have a shunt placed to relieve pressure. Bands may be placed around large varices to cause them to shrink. The bands may be used to prevent or stop bleeding. You may need surgery to remove the bleeding section of your esophagus if caregivers cannot stop the bleeding.

What are the risks of esophageal varices?

You may have severe abdominal pain or see blood in your vomit or bowel movements if your varices bleed. Bleeding can also cause confusion, chest pain, and shortness of breath. You may need a blood transfusion if you lose too much blood. Blood loss can be life-threatening. You may need a liver transplant if your liver fails.

How can I prevent my esophageal varices from bleeding?

  • Do not drink alcohol: This will help prevent further damage to your esophagus and liver.

  • Eat healthy foods: Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet. You may need to eat foods that reduce stomach acid. Stomach acid can get into your esophagus and cause the varices to break open and bleed.

  • Limit sodium: You may need to decrease the amount of sodium you eat if you have swelling caused by fluid buildup. Fluid buildup can cause increased pressure in your veins. Sodium is found in table salt and salty foods such as canned foods, frozen foods, and potato chips.

  • Drink liquids as directed: Too much liquid can increase the pressure in your veins. Ask your caregiver how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have severe abdominal pain.

  • You see blood in your vomit or bowel movements.

  • You have chest pain or are short of breath.

  • You have trouble thinking clearly.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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