A barium swallow is a radiographic (X-ray) examination of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, specifically the pharynx (back of mouth and throat) and the esophagus (a hollow tube of muscle extending from below the tongue to the stomach). The pharynx and esophagus are made visible on X-ray film by a liquid suspension called barium sulfate (barium). Barium highlights certain areas in the body to create a clearer picture. A barium swallow may be performed separately or as part of an upper gastrointestinal (UGI) series, which evaluates the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine).
X-rays use invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film. X-rays are made by using external radiation to produce images of the body, its organs, and other internal structures for diagnostic purposes. X-rays pass through body tissues onto specially-treated plates (similar to camera film) and a “negative” type picture is made.
Fluoroscopy is often used during a barium swallow. Fluoroscopy is a study of moving body structures -- similar to an X-ray “movie.” A continuous X-ray beam is passed through the body part being examined, and is transmitted to a TV-like monitor so that the body part and its motion can be seen in detail. In barium X-rays, fluoroscopy allows the radiologist to see the movement of the barium through the pharynx and esophagus as a person drinks.
Barium is a dry, white, chalky, metallic powder that is mixed with water to make a thick, milkshake-like drink. Barium is an X-ray absorber and appears white on X-ray film. When swallowed, a barium drink coats the inside walls of the pharynx and esophagus so that the swallowing motion, inside wall lining, and size and shape of these organs is visible on X-ray. This process shows differences that might not be seen on standard X-rays. Barium is used only for diagnostic studies of the GI tract.
The use of barium with X-rays contributes to the visibility of various characteristics of the pharynx and esophagus. Some abnormalities of the pharynx and/or esophagus that may be detected by a barium swallow include tumors, ulcers, hernias, diverticula (pouches), strictures (narrowing), inflammation, and swallowing difficulties.
Another related procedure that may be used to diagnose upper GI problems is esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD). Please see this procedure for additional information.
Digestion is the process by which food and liquid are broken down into smaller parts so that the body can use them to build and nourish cells, and to provide energy. Digestion begins in the mouth, where food and liquids are taken in, and is completed in the large intestine.
One of the main functions of the pharynx is swallowing. The main function of the esophagus is the forward propulsion of foods to the stomach.
A barium swallow may be performed to diagnose structural or functional abnormalities of the pharynx and esophagus. These abnormalities may include, but are not limited to, the following:
There may be other reasons for your physician to recommend a barium swallow.
You may want to ask your physician about the amount of radiation used during the procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. It's a good idea to keep a record of your past history of radiation exposure, such as previous scans and other types of X-rays, so that you can inform your physician. Risks associated with radiation exposure may be related to the cumulative number of X-ray examinations and/or treatments over a long period of time.
If you're pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your physician. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects.
Patients who are allergic to or sensitive to medications, contrast dyes, iodine, or latex should notify their physician.
Constipation or fecal impaction may occur if the barium isn't completely eliminated from the body.
Contraindications for a barium swallow may include, but are not limited to:
There may be other risks depending upon your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your physician prior to the procedure.
A barium swallow may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary, depending on your condition and your physician’s practices.
Generally, a barium swallow follows this process:
You may resume your normal diet and activities after a barium swallow, unless your physician advises you differently.
Barium may cause constipation or possible impaction after the procedure if it isn't completely eliminated from your body. You may be advised to drink plenty of fluids and eat foods high in fiber to expel the barium from the body. You may also be given a cathartic or laxative to help expel the barium.
Since barium isn't absorbed into the body but passes through the entire intestinal tract, your bowel movements may be lighter in color until all of the barium has been excreted.
Notify your physician to report any of the following:
Your physician may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only, and wasn't designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your physician. Please consult your physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
This page contains links to other websites with information about this procedure and related health conditions. We hope you find these sites helpful. But please remember we don't control or endorse the information presented on these websites, nor do these sites endorse the information contained here.