The nation learned last week that Vice President Dick Cheney has esophagitis. What's that, you ask?

It's an inflammation of the esophagus, the tube that connects the back of the throat to the stomach. Physicians typically diagnose esophagitis by inserting a scope down the throat and inspecting the lining of the gullet for redness or damaged tissue.

The condition sometimes develops in people with chronic heartburn, or reflux, which is caused by acid rising from the stomach into the esophagus. Acid can eventually damage the lining. While the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) can't estimate the prevalence of esophagitis, "reflux is an epidemic," said AGA spokesman David C. Metz of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "Forty percent of Americans get heartburn at least once a month."

Inside Story Not everyone with occasional reflux needs to be screened for esophagitis, said I. David Shocket, a Washington Hospital Center gastroenterologist. But people who have had heartburn several times a week for months or years should seek attention, he and other experts say. Symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, unexpected weight loss, black stools or bloody vomit may be warning signs of severe inflammation and should be investigated promptly, Shocket added. Esophagitis can lead to a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus, in which damaged esophageal cells give way to acid-tolerant intestinal cells.

Stop Right There Decreasing the frequency of reflux is the best way to prevent esophagitis, said gastroenterologist Alan F. Ansher of Inova Alexandria Hospital. He recommends avoiding fatty foods, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol. Acid-reducing drugs -- such as over-the-counter Prilosec or the heavily marketed prescription Zantac or Nexium -- may also help. "The most important thing," Shocket said, "is to stay upright for several hours after eating." Once esophagitis arises, a daily dose of those same drugs may help it subside.

The White House has not released details about the Vice President's treatment plan. For more information, visit the AGA online at www.gastro.org.

-- Ben Harder

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Vice President Dick Cheney, leaves the George Washington University Hospital, after a physical check up, Saturday, July 16, 2005, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)