Barium Swallow

Find out what a barium swallow is, how you have it and what happens after it.

A barium swallow is a test that shows the inside of your food pipe (oesophagus). Doctors can use it to help diagnose oesophageal cancer.

You drink white barium liquid, which shows up on x-rays. Your doctor (radiologist) or radiographer then takes x-rays while you swallow the liquid. This test can show any growths or abnormal looking areas.

What happens

You have a barium swallow as an outpatient in the radiology (x-ray) department. It takes 10 to 15 minutes.

A radiographer or an assistant takes you to a cubicle to change out of your clothes and put on a gown.

Once you’re in the x-ray room, you stand in front of the x-ray camera. You drink some white barium liquid. This is sometimes fruit flavoured but can taste chalky.  

Your radiologist or radiographer takes a series of x-rays as the barium passes down your throat and into your stomach. They might take some x-rays with you lying down.

Preparing for your barium swallow

You can’t eat for 4 to 6 hours before the test. You might be able to drink water up to 2 hours before. The hospital gives you written instructions about this beforehand.

Talk to your doctor if not eating could be a problem for you, for example if you have diabetes.

Contact your hospital before your appointment if you are pregnant or think you might be.

After the barium swallow

Once the test is over you can get dressed and go home. You can eat and drink normally.

You pass the barium out of your body in your poo. So it will look pale or white for a few days.

Barium can cause constipation. To try to prevent this, you should drink plenty of water and eat more fibre for a few days after the test. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you haven’t been to the toilet for a few days.

Getting your results

You should get the results in 1 or 2 weeks. The doctor who arranged the barium swallow gives them to you.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. You can ask your doctor or nurse how long it takes to get the results. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Possible risks

Barium swallow is a safe test. But there are possible risks. Your doctor makes sure the benefits of having the test outweigh the possible risks.

A small amount of barium liquid can go into the airway when you drink it. Physiotherapy can help you to cough it up but most people don’t need it. Tell your doctor or radiographer before the test if you have problems swallowing.

Exposure to radiation from x-rays can slightly increase your risk of developing cancer in the future. The amount of radiation in medical tests is low. Talk to the doctor or radiographer if you’re worried about this.

If cancer is found

If cancer is found, you'll go on to have more tests.

Last reviewed: 
28 Oct 2016
  • Information for patients having a barium swallow
    Royal College of Radiologists, 2010.

  • X-rays are they safe?
    National Radiological Protection Board, 2001