Upper GI Series (Barium Swallow)

Author: OncoLink Team
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What is an upper GI series?

An upper GI series, also called a barium swallow, uses x-rays to help diagnose problems of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The upper GI tract includes the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine.

An upper GI series can be used to help determine the cause of:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Swallowing difficulties.
  • Heartburn.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

An upper GI series is conducted by a radiology technologist or a radiologist—a doctor who specializes in x-ray imaging—at a hospital or outpatient center.

How do I prepare for an upper GI series?

Patients should tell their doctor about all health conditions they have including allergies to medications or foods and about all medications they are taking.

The upper GI tract must be empty prior to an upper GI series. Generally, no eating or drinking is allowed for 8 hours before the procedure. The patient should not smoke or chew gum during this time.

Women should let their doctor know if they are pregnant. Special precautions can be taken to minimize exposure to the fetus.

How is this test performed?

The procedure involves sitting or standing in front of an x-ray machine to have images taken. The patient drinks a white, chalky liquid called barium. The barium coats the lining of the upper GI tract to make signs of disease show up more clearly on x-rays.

Additional x-rays are performed while the patient lies on an x-ray table. Patients will be asked to hold still in various positions. This allows the technologist or radiologist to take x-rays of the upper GI tract at different angles. If a technologist conducts the upper GI series, a radiologist will later examine the images.

Sometimes, a technique called a ‘double contrast study’ is used. The double contrast study uses a combination of air and barium together to create a more detailed view of the stomach lining. The patient swallows gas-forming crystals. These will mix with the barium liquid to form a gas, expanding the stomach. Additional x rays are taken when the stomach is expanded.

What to expect after an upper GI series?

Patients may experience bloating and nausea for a short time after an upper GI series. For several days after the exam, barium in the GI tract will cause stools to be white or light colored. Unless otherwise directed, patients can resume their normal diet once they leave the hospital or outpatient center.

Mild constipation from the barium liquid is the most common complication. To avoid this, drink plenty of liquids after the exam.

How do you receive the results of your upper GI series?

You may receive some results of your test the day it is done. The official results and report of this test are usually available in 7-10 days. Your care provider will be able to discuss these results with you. 

When to contact your care team

In rare cases, barium can block the intestines. This can be a life-threatening condition. Symptoms of this are:

  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • Failure to have a bowel movement within 2 days after the procedure.
  • Inability to pass gas.
  • Fever.
  • Bleeding from the rectum.

Barium can also cause an allergic reaction in some people. Signs of an allergic reaction include hives, itching, difficulty breathing, agitation, or confusion.

Contact your care team if you develop any of these rare side effects. If you are unable to contact your care team, call 911, or visit an emergency room.

References

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Upper GI Series. 2016. 

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