Barium x-ray

Barium is a liquid that shows up the outline of your organs when you have an x-ray. You might have this test to check part of your digestive system.

What it 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 food pipe (oesophagus), stomach or bowel. It shows up the outline of the organs when you have an x-ray.

A tumour can show up as an irregular outline. You would usually have further tests to find out what the tumour is.

Why you have it

You might have this type of test to help find the cause of your symptoms.

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

This test looks at the oesophagus and stomach. It takes around 20 minutes.

Preparing

You can't eat or drink for a few hours before the test. Usually your doctor asks you not to eat or drink after midnight the night before. But this depends on the time of your test.

Your doctor tells you if you need to stop taking any medication before the test.

What happens

You have the test in the x-ray department of the hospital. You might need to change into a hospital gown. You can bring a friend or relative along for support, but they are not usually allowed to go into the x-ray room with you.

In the x-ray room, you drink the white barium liquid. It is sometimes fruit flavoured, but can taste a bit chalky. The doctor (radiologist) or radiographer might 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 might 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. The test takes around 40 minutes.

Preparing

The day before the test, you usually need to take some medicine to clear out your bowel (a laxative). The hospital gives you a leaflet explaining how to take the laxative and what you can eat and drink. You might be told:

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

What happens

You have the test in the x-ray department at the hospital. You change into a hospital gown before the test. Then you lie on your left side on the x-ray table.

You have an enema of barium and water 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 might tilt the x-ray table so that the barium spreads through your lower bowel and shows up any lumps or swellings on the x-ray screen.

Some air is put into the tube to inflate the bowel. This gives a clearer picture.

Most of the liquid barium drains back into the tube and is removed. Many people find this test a bit embarrassing. But it shouldn't be too uncomfortable.

During the test, you might 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 might also have some diarrhoea.

Your first couple of poos (stools) after the test are white. But they go back to normal after the barium is out of your system. Drink plenty to help wash the barium out of your bowel and prevent constipation. 

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 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.

Barium swallow

With a barium swallow, there is a risk that when drinking it a little bit may go down the wrong way - into the airway. This is very rare. You can usually cough it up, but you might 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

How long the results take will depend on why you are having the test. It may take up to a couple of weeks.

Usually a report is sent to your specialist, who gives you the results. If your GP has sent you for the test, the report will be sent directly to the GP surgery.

If your doctor needs the results urgently, they will make a note of this on the request form and they will be ready sooner. If you have not had your results a couple of weeks after your test, you could contact your doctor to chase the results for you.

Waiting for results can be an anxious time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can speak to for information and support if you need to. It may 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. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
16 Jan 2017
  • 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 Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 9th edition
    L Dougherty and S Lister (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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