What Is an Air Contrast Barium Enema?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 30, 2022
2 min read

An air contrast barium enema is a test for your colon. These days, doctors don’t use it as often to look for colorectal cancer. Instead, it’s more common to get a colonoscopy, which can find smaller polyps and colorectal cancers that a barium enema might not show.

Air contrast barium enemas can still be useful if your doctor thinks you might have certain inflammation-related colon conditions, such as diverticulitis.

Your doctor will tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat or drink in the days before the test. You’ll need to follow their guidelines, since your colon must be empty for the test to work well.

Generally, you’ll need to make your diet more liquid and cut down on solid foods. Or your doctor may recommend a liquid diet with no solids.

If necessary, your doctor also may recommend a laxative or enema to cleanse your colon before the test.

The test should take about 45 minutes.

You’ll lie on your back on a table in the testing room.

Behind you will be a specialized X-ray machine that shows video images of the body on a monitor. The X-ray technician will probably first take a regular X-ray of your abdomen. After that, they will put a lubricated tube into your rectum. The tube connects to a bag of barium sulfate solution. The technician will slowly pump the solution through your intestine, and then pump air into it.

Using the barium, the technician can get a clear picture of the lining of the intestine from several angles. For some of these angles, you’ll move around in order to coat all parts of the colon. Once you are in the correct position, you’ll need to stay still and hold your breath while the X-rays are taken.

During the test, you may feel slight cramping and a strong urge to have a bowel movement. Take deep breaths to ease this feeling and help you relax.

It may take a couple of days to get the results of the test. If the radiologist looks at the films right away, it’s possible to get the results back sooner.

You can go back to your normal diet and lifestyle soon after an air contrast barium enema.

You will pass what remains of the barium for the next few days. Your poop may look white during that time. Drinking plenty of water helps move the barium out of your system.

It’s rare, but an air contrast barium enema can cause an infection or a tear in the rectal wall. It's important to call your doctor right away if you:

  • Have a fever
  • See a lot of blood in your stool
  • Are in a lot of pain