Barium, or barium sulfate, belongs to a class of drugs called radiopaque contrast agents. Radiopaque contrast agents coat the esophagus, stomach or intestines so that they can be seen clearly on a CT scan or other X-ray mechanism. Barium guides doctors in making diagnoses, especially ones pertaining to conditions that affect the digestive system. Barium comes in tablets, paste, cream and liquid forms, and, like most medications, presents some side effects.
Allergic reactions are extremely serious and should be treated by a medical doctor as quickly as possible. They may come on suddenly and progress rapidly and, if untreated, can cause death. Signs of an allergic reaction to barium include swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat; difficulty breathing; hives; or itching. Labored breathing caused by constriction of the airways is usually audible and can be detected easily along with the visual signs of an allergic reaction.
Serious Side Effects
Serious side effects that may require medical treatment include severe stomach pain, cramping, diarrhea or constipation, sweating, a ringing sound in the ears, confusion, rapid heartbeat, pale or blue-tinted skin, agitation, hoarseness, reddening of the skin and weakness. Other, less serious side effects include mild abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, bloating, tightness in the chest, loose stools and mild constipation. These lesser effects do not generally require medical attention.
Barium Enema Complications
Barium enemas are not conducted as frequently as they once were, now that colonoscopies are routinely done. However, they are still in use and may cause the patient some unexpected complications. Barium can remain in the colon and harden, causing severe constipation and possible pain with bowel movements. It can also create barium granulomas, areas where the colon wall is inflamed due to a reaction to the barium. Perforation of the bowel may also occur, in which a perforation, a hole or split occurs in the bowel and its contents leak into the abdominal cavity, causing serious infection. People with bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis or Crohn’s disease should be careful when taking a barium enema, as their colons are already weakened by these conditions.
Barium has the ability to lodge in the appendix—a small pouch attached to the large intestine—and cause appendicitis, an inflammation of the appendix. The first symptom that is generally noted is pain around the navel that becomes sharp and more severe over time. Reduced appetite, vomiting, nausea and running a low-grade fever are also common at this point. As the appendicitis progresses, the pain spreads to the right lower abdominal area. Sudden movement, coughing or walking can cause the pain to intensify and some people can only become comfortable when lying down and remaining immobile. Late-stage symptoms of appendicitis include fever, chills, constipation, and diarrhea, loss of appetite, shaking, nausea and vomiting.
Barium is not commonly used these days as a diagnostic tool because doctors have better equipment for making diagnoses, including colonoscopies. However, there are general rules that must be followed while using barium as a diagnostic tool, including abstaining from certain foods and adhering to a special diet before the procedure. Inform your physician about any pre-existing health problems to ensure that the diagnostic procedure runs smoothly.