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Barium x-ray

Find out about having a barium x-ray including what it is, how you have it and what happens afterwards.

You have this type of test if your doctor needs to look at the outline of any part of your digestive system. 

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 shows up the outline of the organs on the x-ray.

If there is a tumour, it shows 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.

Why you might have it

There are 2 types of barium tests:

  • 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)

Barium swallow

What it is

This is the name for the test that looks at the oesophagus and stomach. This test takes around 20 minutes.

Preparing for your test

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.

What to expect

The test takes place in the x-ray department. You may need to change into a hospital gown. 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.

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

You might have an injection of a drug during the test to relax your stomach.

After your test

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. Drinking plenty might help to prevent this.

Some people feel a bit sick after a barium swallow. This should get better as the barium passes through your system.

You will also have white poo (stools) the first couple of times you go to the toilet.

Barium enema

What it is

You have a barium enema if your doctor wants to look at the inside of your bowel. This test takes around 40 minutes.

Preparing for your test

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

What to expect

Most people find this test a little undignified and a bit embarrassing, but it should not be too uncomfortable.

You change into a hospital gown before 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 table tilts and the barium spreads through the lower bowel. This 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.

After your test

After the test you might 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.

X-rays and radiation

The amount of radiation you are exposed to during the x-ray is kept to a minimum.

You should not have these tests if you are pregnant.

Injection to relax the stomach or bowel

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 might not have this drug if you have glaucoma (increased pressure within the eye) or heart problems. The doctor checks this with you when you go for the test.

Barium swallow

With a barium swallow, there is a risk that when drinking it a little bit may go down the wrong way and into your 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.

Barium enema

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.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. Your doctor may be able to tell you what they saw straight after the procedure.

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 for information and support. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

More information

We have more information on tests, treatment and support if you have been diagnosed with cancer.

Last reviewed: 
14 Apr 2015
  • Information for patients having a barium swallow

    Royal College of Radiologists, 2010

  • Information for patients having a barium enema

    Royal College of Radiologists, 2010

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 8th Edition

    L Dougherty and R Lister (Editors)

    Wiley - Blackwell, 2011

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