Barium Swallow is a test to examine the oesophagus whilst you are swallowing. This test aims to look for problems in the oesophagus (gullet) such as a stricture (narrowing), hiatus hernias, tumours, reflux from the stomach, disorders of swallowing, etc.
Barium is a white substance which shows up the outline of the bowel on X-ray pictures, acting like a temporary dye.
The barium X-ray machine is a table which can tilt, with a camera just over a metre above you, which delivers the X-rays. Within the room there will usually be either a Radiologist or a Radiographer. This kind of screening has been used for many, many years and was started just after the start of diagnostic X-rays at the turn of the last century.
How to prepare for barium swallow examination?
Do not have anything to eat or drink for six hours before the examination. Do not smoke during this time. Continue to take all your usual medications.
What do expect in barium swallow examination?
You will be asked to remove most of your clothing and will be given a gown to wear. After you have entered the X-ray room you will be asked to lie on, or stand against the X-ray table. You will be given a cup of white fluid (barium) to drink. This does not taste too bad but does have a chalky texture. You will probably be asked to drink another fluid from a small container. This makes gas in your stomach which is needed to get the best pictures. It is very important that you try not to burp. The table may be moved to a horizontal position you will be informed before this happens. You may also be asked to swallow a marshmallow.
Working of barium swallow examination
Normally your oesophagus, stomach and duodenum do not show up on X-ray films because they are similar in density to the surrounding tissues. Barium is a harmless material which forms a thin lining on the inside of your stomach and digestive tract so that the surfaces are clearly outlined. The marshmallow allows the radiologist to assess oesophageal motility.
The barium will make your motions pale for several days.
If you suffer from constipation, consult your doctor.
Post barium swallow examination
You should be able to go home as soon as the test is finished. Some people feel a little sickly for a few hours afterwards. You can eat normally straight after any barium test. You will be given an aftercare sheet.
Points to remember about barium swallow examination
- Tell your doctor if you have insulin-dependent diabetes, so that you can arrange for the best time for you to stop eating and for the test to be done.
- Pregnant women, if possible, should not have barium swallow, as there is a small risk that X-rays may harm the unborn child. This is why women are asked before having an X-ray if they are, or might be, pregnant.
- Barium swallow test is done less commonly these days. The more common test to look into the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum is with a flexible telescope (endoscopy). However, there is still a place for barium tests to help assess various problems of the gut.