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Barium swallow and meal

Key points

  • Barium swallow and meal is a test that uses X-rays to examine your throat, oesophagus, stomach and small bowel.
  • It involves drinking white liquid containing barium (a substance which shows up on X-rays) before taking X-ray images.
  • The test can help diagnose conditions such as ulcers, abnormal growths, narrowing or a blockage.

A Barium swallow and meal involves swallowing a drink that contains barium (a substance which shows up on X-rays). The barium coats the inside of your throat, oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), stomach and small bowel. This allows for clearer X-ray images.

You will meet the radiologist carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

About barium swallow and meal

A barium swallow and meal is a type of X-ray test. It allows your doctor to examine your throat, oesophagus, stomach and the first part of your bowel, called the duodenum.

The procedure involves drinking white liquid called barium and then taking X-rays.

X-rays usually pass straight through parts of the gut, such as your oesophagus, stomach and bowel. Because of this, these structures don't show up well on plain X-ray images. However, if your gut wall is coated with barium, the outline of your gut shows up clearly on X-ray images.

If your stomach is being examined, the test is called a barium meal. If your oesophagus is examined at the same time, it's called a barium swallow and meal.

The test is often done as an outpatient procedure in a hospital's imaging or radiology department. It’s usually carried out by a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in using imaging methods to diagnose medical conditions). A radiographer (a health professional trained to perform imaging procedures) will also be present.

A barium swallow and meal test can give your doctor information about your swallowing action. It can also pick up patches of irritation such as ulcers, abnormal growths, narrowing or a blockage.

What are the alternatives to barium swallow and meal?

The main alternative to a barium swallow and meal is to have a gastroscopy. A gastroscopy is a procedure used to look inside your oesophagus, stomach and the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). A gastroscopy involves using a narrow, flexible, tube-like telescopic camera called a gastroscope.

Sometimes you may have a computed tomography (CT) scan, which uses X-rays to make a three-dimensional image of your gut.

You may need to have a combination of tests to get a diagnosis. Your doctor will explain your options to you.

Preparing for a barium swallow and meal

Your radiographer will explain how to prepare for your examination.

Your stomach and small bowel need to be empty for the test. This is so the barium can coat every part of your stomach and bowel lining. To achieve this, you will be asked not to eat or drink anything typically for four hours before your test.

It's important to follow the fasting instructions from your hospital carefully. If your stomach or small bowel isn't empty, the images from the test will be incomplete and you may need to have the test again.

You should tell your radiographer about any medicines you're taking and if you have any allergies, glaucoma or heart disease. If you usually take medicines in the morning, don’t have your morning dose but take your medicines to hospital and let your radiologist know. If you have any questions about your medicines, contact the radiology department at your hospital or ask your doctor.

If you're a woman of childbearing age, you will be asked if you're pregnant. A barium swallow and meal isn't recommended for pregnant women, unless there is an urgent medical reason. It’s important to tell your radiographer if you could be pregnant.

Your radiographer will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen. You can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead. You may be asked to do this by signing a consent form.

If you take tablets or insulin for diabetes, you will be given some specific advice about what to do before the test. Make sure you have enough to eat the day before your appointment to prevent low blood sugar, and follow the advice given by your hospital.

What happens during a barium swallow and meal

The test usually takes 10 to 15 minutes, but you will probably be in the radiology department for about 30 minutes.

You will be asked to remove your clothing and put on a hospital gown in a private cubicle. You will be taken to the X-ray room where you will be asked to drink some white liquid that contains barium. The liquid tastes chalky and may be mildly fruit-flavoured. You will be asked to have one or two mouthfuls at a time. You may need to hold a mouthful of barium and swallow when your doctor or radiographer asks you to.

Your radiographer will help position you in front of an X-ray camera. You may then be asked to swallow a dessertspoon of granules followed by a dessertspoon of liquid. The granules will dissolve in your stomach and produce carbon dioxide gas. This will help your radiographer to take clear X-ray images of your stomach wall. You may also be given an injection of a muscle relaxant to help relax the muscles of your stomach and stop it from moving.

Images of your oesophagus will be displayed on a monitor. Your radiologist will take several X-ray images, or a moving series of images, with you in different positions. The X-ray table will then slowly tilt until you’re in a horizontal position and your radiologist will take some more images.

At certain points during the test, you may be asked to hold your breath for a couple of seconds. You may also be asked to swallow while lying down.

What to expect afterwards

You will usually be able to go home when you feel ready. If you were given a muscle relaxant, wait at least an hour before driving.

Once home, drink clear fluids regularly and try to eat vegetables, fruit and foods high in fibre. This will help you maintain regular bowel movements and prevent constipation.

A report will be sent to the doctor who requested your test. This usually takes about a week to reach your doctor.

What are the risks?

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with a barium swallow and meal. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your radiographer or radiologist to explain how these risks apply to you.

You will be exposed to some X-ray radiation. In all X-ray examinations, the amount of radiation is kept to the absolute minimum that is necessary. The level of exposure is about the same as you would receive naturally from the environment over 12 to 18 months. This is regardless of whether you have just a barium swallow or a barium swallow and meal.

If you’re pregnant

Pregnant women are generally advised not to have X-ray tests of their abdomen. This is because there is a risk the radiation may cause some damage to their unborn child. If you could be pregnant, it’s important to tell your doctor or radiographer.

Side-effects

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure.

After having a barium swallow or meal, you may feel bloated for a short while. You may also feel constipated for a few days and need to take a mild laxative. Your faeces may appear white for a day or two.

The muscle relaxant commonly used for this test can temporarily blur your eyesight and give you a dry mouth. It may also make it harder than usual to pass urine and/or make you need to go more urgently.

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure.

It's very rare, but you may have a reaction to the barium liquid. If you have any itching or difficulty breathing, tell your radiographer immediately. Medicines are available to treat an allergic reaction.


Reviewed by Alice Rossiter, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2014.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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