Barium Swallow

What is a Barium Swallow Test of the Upper Gastrointestinal (G.I.) Exam?

An upper G.I. (UGI) examination is a diagnostic procedure that uses a contrast agent, called barium, to produce images of your upper gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus, stomach and small intestine (small bowel). Using a type of x-ray, called Fluoroscopy, the UGI exam can detect problems with your upper digestive system and this procedure helps your doctor identify problems, with minimal risk and discomfort to you.

Can I Eat Before a Barium Swallow Test?

  • Do not eat or drink anything, including chewing gum, for eight to 12 hours before the exam - so your stomach and upper digestive tract are completely empty. You may brush your teeth but avoid swallowing any water. 

How Do I Prepare for My Exam?

To prepare for the UGI exam you should:

  • Remove any piercings from the abdomen and chest - so they do not interfere with the images produced during the exam.
  • Inform the technologist if you may be pregnant. If there is a possibility of pregnancy, a pregnancy test will be ordered before the exam.

If you have questions about the preparation or procedure, please call your physician’s office. Report to the registration area 30 minutes prior to your scheduled exam time to complete the registration process.

How Does a Barium Swallow Work?

For this exam, you will change from your clothing into a hospital gown so the area to be examined can be easily accessed. A technologist will gently position you on a special tilting table with a fluoroscope  (an X-ray machine combined with a television monitor). A radiologist or a radiology physician's assistant will perform the UGI exam. These individuals specialize in the study of imaging tests, such as X-ray images, ultrasound, CT, etc., to assure the most accurate results from your examination.

You will be asked to drink a liquid barium mixture while the radiologist or physician’s assistant watches the barium flow through your digestive tract. In addition, "spot films" will be taken of the areas your doctor wants to study. You will be asked to turn and hold several positions so the radiologist can get images from many different angles.

How Long Will the Exam Take?

Time will vary significantly, depending on the nature of the study and other factors. Average time for UGI exams is 30 to 40 minutes. If you are also scheduled for small bowel series, the time will be considerably longer.
For small bowel series, the barium you drink is followed through 22 feet of your small intestine by taking abdominal images every 30 minutes until the barium has reached the colon. This usually takes a minimum of 60 minutes but everyone's digestive system is different, so your study may take more or less time.

What Happens After My Exam?

After the exam, you are free to return to your normal activities and usual diet unless told otherwise by your physician.  Barium may cause constipation and It is normal for the barium to give a whitish color to your stool for the next day or two. You will need to increase your water intake and possibly take a mild laxative in order to clear the barium from your system within a day or two of your exam. If you have trouble with constipation normally, you should consult your physician for a specific treatment plan.

After your study is completed, the radiologist will interpret your images and send a written report to your physician. Your physician will review the results of the exam with you at your next scheduled appointment.