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Barium X-ray

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This page tells you about barium tests. There is information about

 

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 food pipe (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 the stomach. After the test some people feel sick for a short time and are constipated for a few days.

A barium enema looks at the lower 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 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. After the test you may be constipated and your stool may be white.

The results

The time it takes for the test results to come through can vary. Contact your doctor 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 (gullet or oesophagus) or stomach. A barium enema looks at the lower 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 gullet, 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. You may also have white stools (bowel motions) the first couple of times you go to the toilet.

 

Barium swallow

This is the name for the test that looks at the food pipe (gullet or 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.

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 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 may want to take X-rays while you are swallowing the barium as well as when it is in your stomach.

You can go home as soon as the test 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.

Before the test, your doctor will have given you some medicine to take to clear out your bowel. Usually, you take this the day before the test. Your doctor will ask you

  • 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. Then you have an enema of barium and water – it is put into your back passage (rectum) through a small plastic tube. You have to try to hold the liquid in your back passage until all the X-rays have been taken. 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.

After the test, you may be constipated and may want to ask the doctor for a mild laxative to take home with you.  Your first couple of stools will be white but they will go back to normal after the barium is out of your system.

 

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 needed 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 when you are first asked to go for the test. If it you have not heard about the results within a couple of weeks after your test, you can ring your doctor's secretary to check if they are back.

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Updated: 6 August 2013