Barium Swallow

UKNOW’s Docs Procedures Barium Swallow

What is a Barium (Contrast) Swallow?

A barium swallow is a test that uses a special drink that looks like white milk or a clear drink (like water) called barium or contrast as well as an X-Ray.  Sometimes it is also called an Upper GI (upper gastrointestinal test) because the upper GI includes your esophagus and stomach. The barium (contrast) drink is used to help the doctor see better or highlight the areas that the doctor wants to look at, usually your esophagus and stomach.  The X-Ray is used to take the pictures.

Why do I need to have a Barium Swallow?

You may have to have a barium swallow if the doctor wants to check to see how your esophagus and stomach are working and what they can do to help you.

What does a Barium Swallow look like?

The barium swallow is done where X-Rays are taken (radiology department).  The drink is white or clear; if it is white, it looks like a milkshake, if it is clear it looks like water.  There is also a bed with the X-Ray machine.  Along with the X-Ray machine there is a computer and TV screen.  The TV shows the pictures taken by the X-Ray of your esophagus and stomach.

What happens when I have a Barium Swallow?

If you are already in the hospital, a porter will come to bring you to the special room to have the barium swallow.  A technologist (the person who will take the pictures) will greet you and explain what will happen.

The technologist will give you a gown to wear, this looks like a backward housecoat, you may already be wearing one.

You will be asked get up on a bed.  The technologist will then bring out the barium drink and tell you when to start drinking.  You may be asked to take a few gulps and then wait a bit.  After you have swallowed some or most of the contrast, the doctor or the technologist will take some pictures using the X-Ray.  As you drink, the contrast moves down your esophagus and into your stomach (this is called the digestive tract).  The contrast makes it really easy for the X-Ray to see inside your body and take clear pictures.  You may be able to see your esophagus and stomach on the TV screen.  They may continue to ask you to take a few more sips of the drink as they continue to take the X-Rays.  They may also move the bed you are on to help the contrast move around.  The bed may tilt forward and back, but do not worry, if this happens you will be safe so that you do not move on the bed.

If the doctor wants pictures of your small bowels, you will have to wait a little longer until the contrast reaches that part of you body.  To reach the small bowels the contrast first has to go through the esophagus, then to the stomach and then finally reaching the small bowel.  When the barium reaches the small bowels, the technologist will then take more pictures.  Some children may need to take a special medicine that helps them poop before they take the test.  Sometimes, the technologist will gently place a small tube in your rectum (bum); the doctor or technologist will put a puff of air through the tube.  This may feel a bit uncomfortable or it may make you feel like you need to go to the bathroom.

Someone like your mom or dad can stay in the room with you during the test.  When it is over, you are able to go back to your room or go home.

What will the Barium Swallow feel like?

The barium swallow will not hurt.  You cannot see, feel or hear the X-Rays.  The contrast drink that you have to swallow can be thick and white like a milkshake but it does not taste like a milk shake; or it can be clear like water. The contrast drink can taste like a banana that is not ripe, giving you a chalky taste in your mouth.  Some people like this taste and others do not.  Sometimes when the technologist needs to see your bowels better, they may need to place a small tube in your rectum (bum) which may feel a little uncomfortable and it may feel like you have to go to the bathroom.

Remember to lie still so they can get a clear picture of your digestive tract.  After you are done, you may notice that when you go to the bathroom your stool (poop) may be white.  That is just because the barium was white and thick.

Preparing for the test

Your nurse will give you the information you need to help you get ready to have your barium swallow.  She will tell you what you can and cannot eat or drink before the test.


If you have any questions about the test, always ask!

This content has been reviewed and approved by health care team members at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario.

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