What It’s Like to Do a Barium Swallow Test

First I would like to complain to you that when I went to my barium swallow test, I forgot my cell phone at home. This meant two things:

1. I could not see if there were any Pokéstops at the hospital.

2. I could not proceed with my original plan, which was to stay in the city after the test and go over to the mall and have lunch and browse Target and maybe get a few Pokéstops. (Without my cell phone, I fret about the statistically-small chance that the school will call about a sick kid or something. Also, without my phone I can’t get the Pokéstops.)

On to the test itself. I was partly worried about how long it would take: when Edward gets his MRI, we are at the hospital for hours and hours and hours; last time it was five-and-a-half hours. Part of it is the time the actual prep and test take, but part of it is that hospitals seem to be in a different dimension of time and space, and the hours pass without any particular concern for their passing. And of course sometimes at a hospital there are emergencies that mean routine appointments get bumped, as well they should.

Anyway, when the lady from the scheduling department called to set up my appointment, I asked her how long the whole thing would take, and she said, “Oh, 15-20 minutes.” I thought, “AH HA HA HA HA HA okay, fine, DON’T tell me if you don’t want to!” But from the moment I walked into the hospital (half an hour fretfully early) to the moment I walked out again was 45 minutes total. The time from “changed into johnny and waiting for doctor” to “changing out of johnny” was less than 15 minutes. Most of the time was spent in waiting rooms, because I was half an hour early. So it was not very long between thinking “Soon I will be one of these carefree individuals on their way OUT of this waiting room” to being in fact one of those carefree individuals.

Let’s rewind to where I am walking into the hospital. I’d been told not to eat or drink anything after 10:00 the night before, so I was feeling a bit grim: first Monday of Daylight Saving Time AND no coffee. I’d been told to go straight to Diagnostic Imaging, and so I did. There they checked me in and gave me a hospital bracelet, and instructed me to walk over to X-ray.

At X-ray, they had me undress just from the waist up, and put on two johnnies: one opening in the back and a second one opening in the front. (I didn’t have to remove those johnnies at any point during the exam.) All my stuff went into a little locker. A technician brought me into the x-ray room and showed me basically how things would go: she stood where I’d be standing and described the various things the doctor would ask me to do. She showed me a barium tablet that the doctor would have me swallow to see how a pill went down. I asked if most people did fine with the whole thing and she said, “Oh, yes!” and that hardly anyone had trouble—it was just a bit icky to have to drink the drink, she said. She also told me that “it goes in white, and it comes out white—so don’t be alarmed later!”

The doctor came in and had me stand up on a little step, standing in front of what turned out to be an x-ray table turned up on its end. He moved a machine in front of me, so I was sort of snugged into a little nook. He handed me a plastic cup of the barium and told me to get ready to drink it but not drink it yet. Then he had me turn partly to one side and then partly to the other, each time drinking the barium until he said to stop—maybe 7 or 8 seconds each time? Then I had to face forward and drink again. Then he had me swallow the barium tablet and drink again.

I didn’t find the barium particularly gross, but it helped to go into it EXPECTING it to be fairly gross. It was very bland, and tasted faintly like strawberries. It was about the thickness of…well, the technician said milkshake, but milkshakes are such a different TYPE of thickness: cold and crystally and melty. It reminded me more of yogurt thinned with milk (but with no yogurt flavor). I tried to pretend it WAS yogurt, to help me drink it.

The doctor had me turn to my side, and then he lowered the table, which was how I came to realize it was an x-ray table on-end. (The technician had not mentioned this part.) It was an odd sensation: like you’re standing against a wall, and then the wall just lies down and takes you with it. The technician gave me a pillow. The doctor had me drink more barium, through a straw this time, while lying on my side. This was the worst part for me: something about lying on my side, plus this was my second full cup of the barium. (They weren’t forcing me to drink that much: that was just how much I was naturally going through during the swallowing tests. Possibly I was drinking it too fast—but I wasn’t gulping it down or anything.) In the last few seconds, I gagged—but just once, and then the test was done anyway. I continued pretending it was a nice nutritious smoothie and not at all making me queasy—but I did feel slightly queasy. I think it was more mental than physical.

The doctor left, and the technician brought me back to the changing area—and then it was done. I stopped on the way home and got a large coffee and a sausage-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich, and felt so much better. The sweet, sweet relief of coffee is well worth the occasional pain of being a little dependent on it.

Overall, I would say that most of the fretting could be assigned to the Newness, as opposed to the actual procedure. If I had to do the same test again, I would be only very mildly anxious about it: maybe a 1 or 2 on a scale of 10, and most of that would be the nervousness that comes from not being sure I’m following directions correctly, combined with worrying about what they’ll find. LESS anxious than, say, a routine physical where I have to step on a scale, take off the johnny, talk about exercise and alcohol, discuss how many years I have left before they start suggesting colonoscopies, etc.

17 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Do a Barium Swallow Test

  1. Jenny

    I currently have the same symptoms you have (difficulty swallowing, light cough) and it hadn’t occurred to me to go to the doctor (…?) but I just made an appointment so thanks, Swistle.

    1. Corinne

      And now you know exactly what you have to look forward to, thanks to our intrepid field reporter Swistle!

  2. Suzanne

    I am so happy for you that a) it’s OVER and b) it wasn’t horrible!

    And thank you for writing it all up. Very clear and helpful and makes me feel Mentally Prepared if I should someday have to endure a test like this!

  3. Nicole Boyhouse

    I’m so glad! I’m so glad it went better than expected. Hope all the results are good. I almost said “hope the results are positive” but that sounds weird. I mean, positive as in good news, but of course you knew that. I’m babbling. Sorry.

  4. liz

    YAY! (BTW, a colonoscopy is not terrible. The day before is unpleasant, but the colonoscopy itself is a terrific nap.

  5. Kristen

    I am an instructional designer who creates eLessons, job aids, etc. How I wish every subject matter expert I deal with explained procedures as thoroughly, as step-by-steppy, and as entertaining as you!

  6. Cara

    My last barium test was decades ago, so I was afraid to comment and mislead you earlier. So, in the interest of being able to reassure others in the future, would you say my memory the barium was alot like mylanta is correct?

    1. Swistle Post author

      I THINK so, although I am not sure I have had Mylanta. Is it similar to Milk of Magnesia? Or I wonder about Pepto-Bismal, which I remember as being thick, but was it kind of foamy-thick rather than dense/creamy/smooth? It’s been a long time.

  7. Erin

    I have lived through the barium swallow test (and the doctor let me watch!). The taste is unpleasant but not so horrible.

    A word of warning: when the barium comes out, it’s … heavier than the other stuff that comes out. Prepare for barium bombs, if you know what I mean. And it tends to bind you up a bit, so you might want to think about what things help you move things along if you aren’t an every-day-at-2pm-without-fail kind of person.

  8. sooboo

    Glad the test wasn’t terrible! Ugh on forgetting your phone! It’s such a nice distraction in that type of situation. Whenever I leave my house without mine I feel panicky like I’ll never be seen again even though before cell phones, I used to drive across the country with just an atlas from the gas station.

  9. SR168

    International/regional vocab differences being as they are, I was intrigued by your use of the word ‘johnny’. Whilst I knew what you meant through the context, I’ve never heard them called that before. Interesting.

    1. Swistle Post author

      Oh! I love this kind of thing! What do you call them? I’ve also heard them called “hospital gowns.”

      1. Shawna

        Same here: I’ve only heard “hospital gowns” or “hospital robes”. I live in Ottawa, Canada.

    2. British American

      Yes! Johnny was slang for condom when I was growing up in the UK! :P
      In the midwest I’ve only heard this called a “gown”.

  10. Slim

    Catherine Newman was the first time I read “johnny,” which has me intrigued by how the term is jumping regions. I grew up and now live in the Mid-Atlantic, and I’d only heard “hospital gown” before.

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