All You Never Wanted To Know About a Barium Swallow

I have spent the better part of the past few years coughing like a retired coal miner with a five-pack-a-day habit.

Except the closest I’ve ever been to a coal mine is rail cars clattering past on the tracks, and I despise the smell of cigarette smoke (which made for a rough go while I tended bar in college).

I digress.

For a long while my condition was brushed off as asthma. Well-controlled asthma, to boot, save the fact that I constantly suffered post-nasal drip and felt like an invisible elephant was sitting on my chest. (I call her Bubbles – she’s cute but kind of a bitch.) Finally, I found a doctor will to pursue this…and she has. And we’ve had nothing but negative results.

My most recent fun was a CT scan and a barium swallow.

I confess that “barium” and “swallow” was a  freaky combination that set my overactive imagination going. I had questions.  If I flew tomorrow, just what WOULD that full body scan look like? Will my poop glow in the dark? (No. Darn it.)

In searching the interwebz for more info (I was given minimal), I found a lot of super clinical details, but nothing that calmed my nerves.

Again, I’m a giver, so I’m here to help you out. Let me tell you that this test is

Note: I am not a doctor (I don’t even play one on tv) and the tests can vary at different hospitals, so don’t be afraid to ask questions before you go – in particular, if there is any type of medication to avoid before the test.

As it was explained to me (because I ask a lot of questions), the GI tract doesn’t show up well on a regular x-ray. A barium swallow allows the radiologist to view the movement of the liquid through your esophagus via X-rays taken while you swallow.  The X-ray machine was linked to a TV monitor so they could watch it live – it was pretty interesting. I could only catch a glimpse because it was at my side, and they frowned on the barium selfie.

  • You will avoid any food or drink after midnight, so don’t let the scheduler be a douche and give you a 2pm appointment like they did for me or YOU might turn into a gremlin from lack of food/caffeine.Seriously, I was ready to chew my arm off by the time I got to the hospital, and I had zero coffee in my system. I was stabby.
  • You will be asked to take off any jewelry, possibly your top and (if female) your bra (which isn’t a bad thing. FREEDOM!) The radiology tech provided a gown, which would protect my clothes from any spilled barium.
  • The radiologists had me step up onto a small ledge at the bottom of a wall-like surface and face the X-ray machine.
  • They started out with a small shot-glass sized cup of water and quickly poured in a mixture similar to Alka-Seltzer, which I was told to shoot down as fast as I could. It was an odd feeling – like swallowing pop rocks – and while you will feel like burping, resist.
    As soon as the small cup was chugged down, a large cup of thicker barium drink was placed in my left hand, and I was told to take a drink. And then another. And then another. They had me turn to a different angle and do the same.As for the taste? It wasn’t terrible. If you drink protein shakes, you’ll be familiar with the slightly chalky, creamy texture, but overall it was tolerable with a lightly fruity flavor.
  • For the second test, I was given a large pill and had me wash it down quickly with water, and they tracked the movement of THAT down my esophagus. So far so good.
  • Finally, they had me turn around and grab hold of the sides of the “wall”, and they turned it 90 degrees to lay me flat. Placing a pillow under my head and having me pull one knee up to my chest, they gave me a cup of a thinner barium liquid to sip through a straw. (Totally natural position for drinking, right?)

And that was it!

I was fortunate in that the Radiologist and the accompanying radiology student both had a good sense of humor. When we started, he said “step right up and win a prize” to which I grumbled “food? Do I win food?” (He had a sense of humor, all right. He handed me my solo cup of barium Slurpee and told me to pretend it was a daiquiri.)

I suppose I was not the ideal patient, but it’s likely safe to assume they are used to hungry people. At the end, the student even walked me to the lobby to point me to their Starbucks coffee shop so that I could get food before I left. Now that is service!

Some end notes:

You can eat and drink as soon as the test is done. Thank you baby Jesus and all the angels in heaven.

Thanks to the fizzy bicarbonate stuff in that cup I chugged, you may burp all afternoon. Very ladylike. You’ve been warned.

Before I took a sip of coffee, I chugged a bottle of water at the direction of the staff because apparently barium can, erm, slow down your system and cause constipation.Who has time for that?  Drink LOTS of water in the next 24 hours, and plenty of fruit is a good idea, too.

And lastly, with a “TMI” warning, barium can make your poo look white or gray. Fun.
That’s a friendly notice so you don’t freak out later.

You may get a bit of a tummy ache or feel queasy, again, not unexpected; for me other than feeling a bit dehydrated (again, push for the EARLY appointment), I felt fine.

*  *  *

Ultimately, my tests showed everything working in good order, so it will be on to the next test! I’m tired of people looking at me like I’ve got the plague, and I’m SO tired of the cough.

Coughing all the time is exhausting, people.

At least, that’s my excuse for not keeping up with the laundry.

  •  *  *
    I’ll leave you with a little radiology humor from earlier today.


(You “barium”)

One Comment

  • Thom Higgins

    Try getting a stubborn 6 year old to swallow that stuff. They told our son, “It’s like a McDonald’s vanilla milk shake!” That was good for one swallow. After that it was a battle, one syringe at a time, to get the rest of it down.

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