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Barium X-ray

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This page tells you about barium tests. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

What is a barium X-ray?

Barium is a white liquid that shows up clearly on an X-ray. It can show the outline of the food pipe (oesophagus), stomach or bowel. Once the barium is in the body it coats the lining of the organs. It shows up a tumour as an irregular outline extending out from the wall of the affected part of the body. There are different types of barium tests.

A barium swallow looks at the inside of the oesophagus or stomach. You can’t eat or drink for a few hours before the test. In the X-ray room you drink the barium liquid. You may have X-rays taken as you drink the barium and when it is in the stomach. After the test some people feel sick for a short time and are constipated for a few days. You may have white poo (stools) to begin with, but this will go back to normal once the barium is out of your system.

A barium enema looks at the large bowel (colon) and back passage (rectum). The day before the test you take medicine to empty the bowel. On the day of the test you should not eat or drink anything. To have the test you lie on the couch in the X-ray room. The radiographer puts the liquid barium into the bowel using an enema. They then take the X-rays. The radiographer may tilt the couch while you have the X-rays to help spread the barium through your bowel. After the test you may be constipated and your stools may be white at first. To try to prevent constipation, you should drink plenty.

The results

The time it takes for the test results to come through can vary. Contact your doctor's secretary or GP if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

 

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Why you might have a barium test

You have this type of test if your doctor needs to look at the outline of any part of your digestive system. A barium swallow is most often used to look at the inside of the food pipe (oesophagus) or stomach. A barium enema looks at the large bowel (colon) and back passage (rectum).

 

What barium is

Barium is a white liquid that shows up clearly on an X-ray. Once it is inside the body, it coats the inside of the oesophagus, stomach or bowel. And so it shows up the outline of the organs on the X-ray. If there is a tumour, it will show up as an irregular outline extending out from the wall of the affected part of the body.

Barium does not do you any harm and passes through your digestive system. A barium swallow may make you feel sick. Over the couple of days following the test, the barium may cause mild constipation. Drinking plenty may help to prevent this. You will also have white poo (stools) the first couple of times you go to the toilet.

 

Barium swallow

This is the name for the test that looks at the oesophagus and stomach. You can't eat or drink for a few hours before the test. Usually, your doctor will ask you not to eat or drink after midnight the night before, but the exact time depends on the time of your test. They will tell you if you need to stop taking any medication before the test.

When you arrive in the X-ray department, you check in with the receptionist, who will let the radiographers know you are there. You can bring a friend or relative with you for support, but they are not usually allowed to go into the X-ray room with you.

When it is time for your scan, the radiographer or a helper may take you to a cubicle to change out of your clothes and put on a gown. Once you are in the X-ray room, you drink the white barium liquid. This is sometimes fruit flavoured, but can taste a bit chalky. The doctor (radiologist) may want to take X-rays while you are swallowing the barium as well as when it is in your stomach. You may have an injection of a drug during the test to relax your stomach.

This test takes around 20 minutes. You can go home as soon as it is over. Before you leave, you may want to check with the doctor about what to do if you have constipation following the test. Some people feel a bit sick after a barium swallow. This should get better as the barium passes through your system.

 

Barium enema

You have a barium enema if your doctor wants to look at the inside of your bowel. Most people find this test a little undignified and a bit embarrassing, but it should not be too uncomfortable.

The day before the test, you usually need to take some medicine (a laxative) to clear out your bowel. You will have an information leaflet from the hospital to tell you how to take the laxative and what you can eat and drink. You may be told

  • To drink lots of fluids the day before the test
  • Not to eat any solid food on the day before
  • Not to eat or drink anything on the day of the test

When you arrive in the X-ray department, you check in with the receptionist, who will let the radiographers know you are there. When it is time for your scan, the radiographer or a helper will take you to a cubicle to change out of your clothes and put on a gown. 

When it is time for the test, you lie on the X-ray table on your left side. Then you have an enema of barium and water. This is put into your back passage (rectum) through a small plastic tube. You have to try to hold the liquid in your back passage. The doctor or radiographer may ask for the X-ray table to be raised and tilted in different ways during the test. As the table tilts, the barium spreads through the lower bowel and shows up any lumps or swellings, which can be seen on the X-ray screen. They also put some air into the tube to inflate the bowel so that they get a clearer picture. Most of the liquid barium drains back into the tube and is removed. During the test, you may have an injection of a drug to help relax the bowel.

This test takes around 40 minutes. Afterwards, you may have some mild cramping in your abdomen as the air they put in works its way out. You may also have some diarrhoea. Your first couple of stools (poo) will be white but they will go back to normal after the barium is out of your system. To help wash the barium out of your bowel, and prevent constipation, you should drink plenty.

 

Possible risks

Having a barium swallow or barium enema helps doctors find out what may be causing your symptoms but, as with any medical procedure, there are possible risks. Doctors make sure the benefits of doing these tests outweigh any risks.

As you have X-rays as part of these tests, you are exposed to radiation. The amount of radiation is kept to a minimum. You should not have these tests if you are pregnant. So if you are a woman up to the age of 55, you will be asked the date of your last period and whether you could be pregnant.

The injection you have to relax the stomach or bowel may cause temporary blurred vision. If this happens, you should not drive until your eyesight is back to normal. You may not have this drug if you have glaucoma (increased pressure within the eye) or heart problems - the doctor will check this with you when you go for the test.

With a barium swallow, there is a risk that when drinking the barium liquid, a little bit may go down the wrong way - into the airway. This is very rare. You can usually cough this up, but you may need physiotherapy to help. Let the radiographer know if you have any problems swallowing.

During a barium enema, there is a very small risk of making a small tear in the bowel lining. This usually only happens if the bowel is severely inflamed.

 

The results

It can take time for test results to come through. How long will depend on why you are having the test but it may take a couple of weeks. Usually, the X-rays are examined by a specialist in radiology, who dictates a report on them. The report and films are then sent to your specialist, who gives you the results. If your GP has sent you for the test, the report (but not the X-rays) will be sent directly to the GP surgery.

If your doctor needs the results urgently, you may get them in a few days. Understandably, waiting for results can make you anxious. Try to remember to ask your doctor how long you should expect to wait for the results. If you have not heard about the results within a couple of weeks after your test, you can ring your doctor's secretary or GP to check if they are back.

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Updated: 14 April 2015