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Barium Enema

What is a Barium Enema Test?

A contrast barium enema produces images of the large intestine. It includes the colon and anus.

This test is sometimes called a lower GI series. Its full name is lower gastrointestinal tract radiography.

A doctor may want your child to have this test if he or she has:

  • Problems with bowel movements
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

What Happens During a Barium Enema Test?

This test uses a form of x-ray called fluoroscopy and a contrast liquid. The liquid is either a milky white substance called barium or a clear liquid containing iodine. The contrast liquid helps the bowel to appear more clearly on the viewing screen.

Fluoroscopy makes it possible to see internal organs in motion. It’s like a “live” x-ray. It allows doctors to see the colon and rectum and how they function.

How Is a Barium Enema Test performed?

Here’s what you and your child can expect during the test:

  • A radiology staff member will talk with you about why your child needs a barium enema. They will explain the procedure, too.
  • The staff member will help your child onto the x-ray table. Your child will lie on his or her stomach or side. Infants and young children may use a special device to help them stay still.
  • The technologist or radiologist will insert a small tube into the rectum. There are different sizes of tubes according to size and age.
  • The technologist will use something to keep the tube in place. It might be tape or a small, inflated balloon. The tube connects to a bag containing the contrast liquid.
  • The radiologist will move the x-ray machine, also known as “fluoro tower,” over your child. The contrast liquid will flow through the tube.
  • The technologist will gently move your child from side to side to get good images.
  • After the test, the technologist will remove the tube and allow your child to go to the bathroom. The team may then take more images.

How Long Does a Barium Enema Test Take?

The test usually takes about 30 minutes.

The lower gastrointestinal tract includes the large intestine, the appendix, and the rectum.

The lower gastrointestinal tract includes the large intestine, the appendix, and the rectum.

Who Performs a Barium Enema Test?

A radiologist and radiological technologist perform the test.

Is the Barium Enema Test Safe?

A barium enema is a type of x-ray. That means it uses a small amount of ionizing radiation to produce images. The amount of radiation is very small.

The medical benefits outweigh the small amount of radiation exposure. You should discuss any concerns with your child’s care team.

Fluoroscopic side view of a lower GI series test in a pediatric cancer patient.

Fluoroscopic side view of a lower GI series test in a pediatric cancer patient.

The small green arrow points to a problem area in the large intestine on an image from a lower GI series test.

The small green arrow points to a problem area in the large intestine on an image from a lower GI series test.

How Do You Prepare for a Barium Enema Test?

Preparation usually involves taking magnesium citrate and drinking lots of water. Your child’s stools should be watery and clear several hours before the test.

  • Empty the colon: The colon must be empty for the test. If the colon is not empty before the test, the procedure will be canceled.
  • No food or drink other than clear liquids: Your child shouldn’t eat or drink anything but clear liquids for several hours before the test. Instructions depend on:
    • The pediatric center
    • Your child’s age
    • The reason for the exam.

What Details Should You Take Care of Before a Barium Enema Test?

These tips can help you make sure everything is in order before your child’s test:

  • You may need to talk with your insurance company to find out how much it will pay.=
  • Tell the medical team about:
    • Any medications your child takes, including over-the-counter ones
    • Allergies, especially to contrast liquid (likely either contain barium or iodine)
  • Be sure your child wears loose, comfortable clothing.
  • Allow plenty of time to get to the center. You should be on-time for your appointment. It’s better to be a few minutes early.
  • Talk to your child about the test and what will happen. Child life specialists can help.
  • Bring activities in case the waiting period is long.

What Will Your Child Feel?

The tube will feel uncomfortable. It may make your child feel like they need to have a bowel movement. There could be some cramping. These feelings will only last a short time.

What Will Your Child Experience after the Test?

  • After the test, be sure your child drinks extra fluids. The contrast could cause constipation.
  • At first, your child’s bowel movement may appear white or grayish if barium is used as the contrast liquid.

How Will You Find Out the Test Results?

The radiologist will interpret the results and send a report to the doctor who ordered the test. A member of your child’s care team will share results at the next appointment.


Reviewed: October 2021