A barium swallow and meal is a special X-ray test used to examine your throat, oesophagus and stomach.
The gut does not show up well on plain X-rays. However, if the gut wall is coated with barium, a white liquid which shows up on X-rays, it makes it possible to examine the gut.
Sometimes the barium may be substituted with gastrograffin. Ask your doctor or radiographer for details.
If the stomach is being examined it’s called having a barium meal. If the oesophagus is examined at the same time, then it’s called having a barium swallow and meal.
A barium swallow and meal test can help check the oesophagus and stomach for signs of ulcers, inflammation, obstruction or cancer. The examination is routinely done as an out-patient procedure in the imaging or radiology department.
About the procedure
The test usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. You will be taken to the X-ray room where you will be asked to drink a white liquid containing barium. The liquid is usually mildly fruit flavoured and you will be asked to sip one or two mouthfuls at a time.
Your radiographer will help position your body in front of an X-ray camera, often with you standing on a small step of an upright X-ray table. You may then be asked to swallow a dessert spoon of granules followed by a dessert spoon of liquid. This will temporarily expand your stomach, making it easier to see the stomach wall on
You may be given an injection of a muscle relaxant to help relax the muscles of the stomach wall and stop the stomach from moving. Images of your oesophagus will be displayed on a TV screen. Once the oesophagus has been studied and X-rays taken, the table will slowly tilt, so that you are lying down. Then more pictures will be taken.
At certain points during the process you may be asked to hold your breath for a couple of seconds. You may also be asked to swallow whilst lying down.
Afterwards, you may feel bloated for a short while. You may also feel constipated for a few days and may need to take mild laxatives. Muscle relaxants can temporarily blur your eyesight. Vision should improve after 30 minutes.
Barium swallow and meal is commonly performed and generally safe. However, all medical procedures carry risks as well as benefits.
You will be exposed to some X-ray radiation. The level of exposure is about the same as you would receive naturally from the environment over 12 to 18 months. Pregnant women are advised not to have X-rays as there’s a risk the radiation may cause some damage to the unborn child.
It’s possible to have an allergic reaction to the flavouring added to some barium brands - medicines are available to treat any allergic reaction.
The exact risks differ for every person - ask your doctor to explain how any risks apply to you