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An upper gastrointestinal series is an imaging test of your esophagus, stomach, and first part of your small intestine (duodenum). The test is done with X-rays after you swallow a special beverage. The beverage contains either contrast or a powder called barium.
A test of just the back of your mouth and throat (pharynx) and esophagus is called a swallow. It is called a barium swallow if barium is used. It is called a Gastrografin swallow if contrast is used. Gastrografin is the brand name of diatrizoic acid, a contrast material.
X-rays use a small amount of radiation to create images of your bones and internal organs. X-rays are most often used to detect bone or joint problems, or to check the heart and lungs. An upper GI series is one type of X-ray.
Fluoroscopy is often used during an upper GI series. Fluoroscopy lets the radiologist see the barium as it moves through your upper GI tract. It is like an X-ray “movie."
Barium absorbs X-rays and shows up white on X-ray film. When you swallow the barium, it coats the inside of your upper GI tract organs. This lets the radiologist see how you swallow. It also shows the size and shape of and how well the organs are working. These details may not be seen on standard X-rays. Barium is used only to help diagnose problems in the GI tract.
The radiologist may also use a gas during the test. You may be given a powder, tablet, or carbonated beverage that makes gas when swallowed. Or you may drink the barium through a special straw so that you swallow air with the barium. Air or gas will show up as black on X-ray film. Barium will be white. The gas also expands the organs so they can be seen better.
When the radiologist uses both barium and gas for the test, it is called a double contrast study. You may drink the water-soluble contrast instead of the barium if you have a tear or hole (perforation) in your bowel or esophagus.
You may need an upper GI series if your healthcare provider thinks you have a problem in your esophagus, stomach, or duodenum. These problems may include:
Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to recommend an upper GI series.
You may want to ask your healthcare provider about the amount of radiation used during the test. Also ask about the risks as they apply to you.
Consider writing down all X-rays you get, including past scans and X-rays for other health reasons. Show this list to your provider. The risks of radiation exposure may be tied to the number of X-rays you have and the X-ray treatments you have over time.
Tell your provider if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects.
Because contrast dye is used, there is a risk for allergic reaction to the dye. Tell your healthcare provider if you are allergic to or sensitive to any medicines, contrast dye, or iodine.
You may be constipated or have impacted stool afterward if all of the barium does not pass out of your body.
You should not have an upper GI series if you:
You may have other risks depending on your specific health condition. Be sure to talk with your provider about any concerns you have before the procedure.
You may have an upper GI series as an outpatient or as part of your stay in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices.
Generally, an upper GI series follows this process:
You may go back to your normal diet and activities after an upper GI series, unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise.
You may have constipation afterward if all of the barium doesn’t pass out of your body. You may also have impacted stool because of this. You may be told to drink plenty of fluids and eat foods high in fiber to help the barium pass out of your body. You may be given a laxative to help with this.
Your bowel movements may be lighter in color until all of the barium has left your body.
You may have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea because of the contrast material used.
Tell your health care provider if you have any of these:
Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.
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