Upper GI Series

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What is an upper GI series?

An upper GI series is a noninvasive test to diagnose diseases and conditions of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Your upper GI tract consists of your esophagus, stomach and upper small intestine (duodenum). An upper GI series uses X-rays to make images of this portion of your digestive system. Doctors may also use fluoroscopy during an upper GI series. Fluoroscopy is an imaging test that uses X-rays to make real-time moving pictures of the body.

For the test, you will need to drink barium, a chalky white liquid, before the X-rays as well as during the procedure. Barium coats the inside of the upper GI tract. It is a type of contrast material that helps the GI tract show up on the X-ray. The test is also known as a barium swallow when it only involves looking at the structure and function of the esophagus and top of the throat.

An upper GI series is only one method used to diagnose conditions of the upper GI tract. Discuss all of your diagnostic options with your doctor to understand which one is right for you.

Why is an upper GI series performed?

Your doctor may ask you to have an upper GI series to find the cause of unexplained symptoms including:

An upper GI series helps doctors diagnose the following conditions of the esophagus, stomach or small intestine:

  • Cancer, tumors and other growths

  • Diverticula, which are pouches in the intestine

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)

  • Hiatal hernia, which is when part of the stomach moves up into the chest area

  • Inflammation of the small intestine

  • Narrowing of the esophagus (stricture)

  • Ulcers of the stomach or small intestine

  • Varices, which are swollen veins that can bleed

Who performs an upper GI series?

A radiologic technologist often performs an upper GI series under the supervision of a radiologist. A radiologic technologist is a medical professional who is trained in medical imaging and the care of patients during imaging procedures.

A radiologist will evaluate your images. Radiologists are doctors who specialize in performing and interpreting imaging tests. Your radiologist will provide your personal doctor with a diagnosis based on the X-ray images. Your doctor will look at the results in relation to your symptoms and medical history and explain what they mean to you.

How is an upper GI series performed?

Your upper GI series will be performed in a hospital or outpatient radiology setting. The procedure takes less than an hour and generally includes these steps:

  1. You will remove any jewelry and put on a patient gown.

  2. Your radiologic technologist or other care team member will position you on a table that can move from a horizontal to a vertical position during the test. During the test, you may also need to move from side to side to help the barium coat your upper GI tract. 

  3. You will drink the contrast fluid. Most people do not like the taste of the barium contrast, but it is usually flavored to make it easier to drink.

  4. Your care team will take X-ray images while you swallow the drink.

  5. You may need to drink another dose of contrast as it continues through your upper GI tract. The radiologist may press on your abdomen to help coat the stomach.

  6. Depending on the reason for your upper GI series, you may go home the same day or stay in the hospital for further observation and treatment.

Will I feel pain?

Your comfort and relaxation is very important to both you and your care team. The X-ray machine itself never touches you and is not painful. Your position on the X-ray table should not cause pain, but tell a member of your care team if you are uncomfortable.

What are the risks and potential complications of an upper GI series?

An upper GI series is safe for most people. The X-rays from the test expose you to a very small amount of radiation. The amount of ionizing radiation your body gets from the test is minor and does not pose a significant risk above natural background radiation in the environment.

Risks and potential complications of an upper GI series are uncommon but can include:

  • Allergic reactions to barium. Be sure to tell your doctor and radiologist if you have any allergies.

  • Bowel obstruction. Drinking plenty of fluids after the test reduces the risk of bowel problems.

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by:

  • Following activity, dietary and lifestyle restrictions and recommendations before and after your test

  • Informing your doctor or radiologist if you are nursing or if there is any possibility of pregnancy

  • Notifying your doctor immediately of any concerns

  • Taking your medications exactly as directed

  • Telling your care team if you have allergies

How do I prepare for an upper GI series?

The steps you take before your procedure can improve your comfort and outcome. You can prepare for an upper GI series by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history, allergies, and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Not smoking, chewing gum, eating, or drinking liquid for eight hours before your upper GI series

  • Taking or stopping medications exactly as directed

  • Telling your doctor if you are breastfeeding or if there is any possibility you may be pregnant

  • Telling your doctor and radiologist if you have recently had an X-ray test that used barium or other types of contrast. This may interfere with getting the best pictures and making a diagnosis

Questions to ask your doctor

It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before the upper GI series and between appointments. It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointment.

Questions can include:

  • Why do I need an upper GI series? Are there any other options for diagnosing my condition?

  • How long will the procedure take? When can I go home?

  • What kind of restrictions will I have after the procedure? When can I expect to return to work and other activities?

  • Will I need a ride home?

  • What medication plan should I follow before and after the procedure?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

  • When and how will I receive the results of my test?

  • What other tests or treatments might I need?

What can I expect after an upper GI series?

Knowing what to expect after an upper GI series can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.

How will I feel after the test?

You may have cramping and bloating for an hour or so after your upper GI series. It is normal to have light-colored stools for a couple days as the barium passes out of your body.

When can I go home?

You will likely go home right after an outpatient upper GI series. Your doctor will contact you later with your test results. You will be able to get back to your normal activities and your usual diet right after the test.

When should I call my doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after an upper GI series. Contact your doctor if you have any concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  4. Upper GI Series. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/uppergi/
  5. Upper GI Series. Sutter Health CPMC. http://www.cpmc.org/learning/documents/uppergi-ws.html