Barium swallow

A barium swallow is a test that allows your doctor to view the upper part of your bowel.

During a barium swallow a white fluid, called barium, is used to outline the shape of the throat and stomach, and a fizzy drink is used to open up the walls of the stomach.

Why is this test done?

A barium swallow test is ordered for people who are having trouble swallowing, or having unexplained pain or vomiting. It provides useful information about the condition of your gullet and stomach, and can make or confirm a diagnosis.

What do I need to do to prepare for this test?

You will be asked not to eat or drink anything for six hours before the test. This includes medicines, so if you are on any medication you should ring first and check if it is all right to take it.

What happens before the test?

You will be asked to change into a hospital gown and to remove any jewellery, hair clips, or clothes containing metal that will be within the x-ray field. You may also be asked to remove your dentures.

What happens during the test?

You will be asked to get on to an x-ray table. You will either be strapped to the table and the table will tilt during the test, or you will be asked to roll yourself into various positions throughout the test. You will then be given the barium to drink. Usually, pictures will be taken as you swallow, so it is important to stay very still. Sometimes it is necessary to give you a small injection to slow down the movements of your stomach.

If you have glaucoma, you must tell the staff before the test, as a different injection will need to be used.

Most people are then given a fizzy mixture that produces gas in your stomach. It is important that you don't burp this up; swallowing hard will stop your urge to do this. Once the doctor has enough pictures you can go home.

What happens after the test?

A barium meal takes approximately 30 to 60 minutes. Normally, people can resume their daily activities afterwards, although you may want to take it easy for the rest of the day. You can eat normally afterwards.

Make sure you drink at least three litres of fluid each day for the next few days to flush the barium through your system. Your stools will be light coloured for one to three days. You should let the doctor know if you don't have a bowel motion within three days.

The results of the test will be sent to the doctor who referred you for the test. A follow-up appointment will be made to discuss them with you.

What are the risks?

This is a safe test. There are no significant risks.

Where do I go for a barium meal?

Public hospitals perform barium meals, but there may be a waiting list for non-urgent tests. You will require a referral from your GP.

Private radiology facilities also perform barium meals. To have the test privately you will require a referral from your doctor. For further information and support talk to your doctor or contact the hospital or radiology centre where you are having the barium meal.

Credits: Health Navigator NZ.