First Time User? Enroll now.
*Vaccine availability and appointments* | Additional COVID-19 Resources | Testing
Please be aware that mask-wearing is required at all UNC Health facilities.
Home > Health Library > Barium Enema
A barium enema is an X-ray exam of the large intestine (colon and rectum). It may also be called a lower gastrointestinal (GI) exam. The test is used to help find diseases and other problems that affect the large intestine. The colon is filled with a contrast material that contains barium so that the intestine can be seen on an X-ray. This is done by pouring the contrast material through a tube inserted into the anus. The barium blocks X-rays. This causes the barium-filled colon to show up clearly on the X-ray picture.
There are two types of barium enemas.
The single-contrast study may be the better choice for certain medical reasons. It may also be a good choice for older people who may not be able to tolerate a double-contrast study, which takes longer and is more uncomfortable. If the results are not clear, then a double-contrast study may also be done.
A barium enema is done to:
Before a barium enema, tell your doctor if you:
After the test, you may have light-colored stools and cramping for a few days.
The colon is filled with a contrast material that contains barium so that the colon can be seen on an X-ray. This is done by pouring the contrast material through a tube inserted into the anus. The barium blocks X-rays, causing the barium-filled colon to show up clearly on the X-ray picture.
Your doctor will watch the flow of the barium through your colon on an X-ray fluoroscope monitor that is like a TV screen.
A single-contrast study usually takes 30 to 45 minutes. But the actual time the barium is held inside is only 10 to 15 minutes. A double- or air-contrast study may take up to an hour.
When the test is finished:
After the test, you may go back to your regular diet unless your doctor gives you other instructions. Be sure to drink plenty of liquids. They replace those you have lost, and they help flush the remaining barium out of your system. Your bowel movements may look white or pinkish for 1 to 2 days after the test. Your doctor may tell you to take a medicine, such as a laxative, to help you pass the rest of the barium.
A barium enema can be uncomfortable and tiring. But it usually doesn't last very long.
Many people report that the preparation and bowel cleaning are the hardest parts. The laxative may not taste good, and the frequent bowel movements can be tiring. Also, the anal area can become quite sore during the process. Warm sitz baths or a local anesthetic salve, such as Preparation H, can help ease this discomfort.
You may be embarrassed by the test. You may worry that you won't be able to hold the barium and that it will leak onto you or onto the table. The doctors who perform this procedure are used to this. They will be able to help you.
The X-ray table is hard and sometimes cold because air-conditioning is used to keep the equipment cool. When the barium first flows into your colon, it may feel a bit cool. As your colon fills, you may have a feeling of fullness, moderate cramping, and a strong urge to have a bowel movement. If an air-contrast study is performed, you may feel more cramping or gas pains from having gas pumped into your large intestine. Taking slow, deep breaths through your mouth can help you relax.
The test may take awhile. You may want to bring something to do quietly (like bringing a book or magazine to read).
You may feel tired for a day or so after the test. Make sure to arrange for someone to drive you home after the test. This test can be exhausting.
There is very little chance of a problem from having a barium enema.
The results of a barium enema are usually ready right after the test or within a few days.
The colon looks normal.
One or more problems in the colon are found, such as:
Many conditions can change barium enema test results. Your doctor will discuss any important abnormal results with you in relation to your symptoms and past health.
Current as of:
June 27, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineJerome B. Simon MD, FRCPC, FACP - Gastroenterology
Current as of: June 27, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Jerome B. Simon MD, FRCPC, FACP - Gastroenterology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.