Upper Gastrointestinal Series
(Upper GI Series; Barium Swallow; Barium Meal)
X-rays use a small dose of radiation to create pictures of the inside of the body. This type of x-ray takes pictures of the esophagus, stomach, and the first part of the small intestine called the duodenum. The x-rays are taken during and after drinking a contrast material called barium.
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Reasons for Test
This test may be done when there is a problem in the gastrointestinal (GI) system, such as:
- Weight loss
- Belly pain
- Problems swallowing
- Acid reflux—when food and fluids flow back up from the stomach toward the mouth
- Rectal bleeding
- Bloody stools or black, tarry stools
- Bloody vomit or vomit that looks like coffee grounds
An upper GI series can show signs of:
Some people may have an allergic reaction to the barium or have a hard time keeping it down.
X-rays do not cause short-term health complications. But radiation doses may build up in the body over time. The more x-rays you have, the more radiation there will be. This can raise the risk of some cancers. The risk is higher in children and women who could get or are pregnant.
Lead safety shields are used during x-rays. They help lower the amount of radiation to the body.
What to Expect
Prior to Test
The care team will meet with you to talk about:
- Any allergies you may have
- Current medicines, herbs, and supplements that you take and whether you need to stop taking them before the test
- Fasting before the test, such as avoiding food, drink, and smoking for at least 8 hours before the test
- Whether you need to take any medicines before the test to improve the images that will be taken
- Whether you have taken any bismuth medicines within the last 4 days
- Whether you had a barium contrast x-ray within the last 4 days
- Whether you may be pregnant
Description of Test
You will be asked to remove any jewelry. A lead shield may be placed on other parts of the body. This will help to lower exposure to radiation.
You will drink a contrast material called barium. It is a thick, white, chalky, milkshake-like liquid. It coats the inside of the GI tract. This makes the GI tract show up better on the x-ray. You may also be given bits of food to eat with barium on them.
You will lie flat on your back under the x-ray machine. A tech may ask you remain still while the x-ray is taken. The device will send x-rays through the chest and belly. The x-rays will be captured on the other side of the body by a computer or on film. Between x-rays, you may be asked to move into another position.
If the doctor wants to look at more of the intestines, a small bowel follow-through may be done. This means that x-ray pictures are taken every 15 to 30 minutes while the barium travels further down the intestines.
You will be able to leave after the test is done.
How Long Will It Take?
An upper GI series can take 30 minutes to 2 hours. A small bowel follow-through can take 1 to 4 hours.
Will It Hurt?
It will take several days for the barium to leave the body. You may have some white-colored stool or constipation for several days after the test.
The x-ray will be sent to a doctor who specializes in reading them. Your doctor will share the results with you.
Call Your Doctor
Call the doctor if you have any problems, such as:
- Constipation that lasts for more than 2 days
- Problems passing gas
- Belly pain
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
American Gastroenterological Association
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
Radiology for Patients
Patient prep & instruction manual. Scheduled test: upper GI series. Penn Medicine website. Available at: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/radiology/patient/docs/Upper_GI_Series.pdf. Accessed September 15, 2020.
Upper GI series. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diagnostic-tests/upper-gi-series. Accessed September 15, 2020.
X-ray (radiography)—abdomen. Radiological Society of North America Radiology Info website. Available at: https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=abdominrad. Accessed September 14, 2020.
Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Shawna Grubb, RN Last Updated: 3/19/2021