Upper GI Series Test

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on November 18, 2022
4 min read

An upper GI series is a group of X-ray tests that look at your GI tract -- your food pipe (the esophagus), stomach, and the first part of your small intestine (the duodenum) while they're working. It's sometimes called UGI for short.

Your GI tract is the path that food takes through your body. GI stands for "gastrointestinal," which means "stomach and intestines."

Images are made by using a special form of X-ray called fluoroscopy and a contrast material such as barium that you take by mouth.

Fluoroscopy makes it possible to see internal organs in motion. When the upper GI tract is coated with barium, the radiologist can see the esophagus, stomach and duodenum and tell how well they’re working.

An X-ray exam that evaluates only the pharynx and esophagus is called a barium swallow.

An upper GI series can show:

  • An ulcer
  • A hiatal hernia
  • Cancer and other growths, like tumors
  • Enlarged blood vessels
  • Narrowed pathways
  • Scars or other issues with your gastrointestinal tissues
  • Blockages

Doctors use a UGI to learn why your gut isn't working right. You may have this test if you have symptoms like:

It might also help explain why you're losing weight when you don't mean to.

Your doctor will probably ask you not to eat, drink, or chew gum overnight or in the morning before you have this test. Your stomach must be empty, because food makes it hard to see your GI tract on X-rays.

Ask your doctor if it's OK to take your usual medicines with a small sip of water. Tell your doctor if you have any allergies or take supplements.

Also let your doctor know if there's a chance you might be pregnant. X-rays could harm your baby.

You need to go to a hospital or location that does the test. It's not something the doctor can do in the office.

A technician and a radiologist will guide you through it. They won't have to put any devices or instruments inside your body, and you'll be awake. An upper GI may make you feel a little bloated or crampy, but you won't need any pain medicine.

To start, you'll drink a special liquid with barium. It looks like a milkshake but doesn't taste much like one. This coats the lining of your GI tract so it's easier for doctors to see.

The technician will take some X-rays while you do that.

If you're having a kind of UGI called a double-contrast series, you'll also swallow some fizzy tablets. They'll create gas bubbles to expand your stomach for a better view. They may make you want to burp, but try not to. The technician will take more X-rays.

Then you'll lie down for a different X-ray test called fluoroscopy. It follows the barium as it moves through you. The radiologist will watch pictures on a screen, like a movie, to see how your GI tract is working.

During the test, you may need to move around a little, or the table you're on may tilt to get the barium to coat your whole GI tract. You might have to drink more barium to make sure no spots are missed.

The whole process usually takes about 2 hours. It could take as long as 5 hours if the barium moves slowly in your small intestine.

Like all types of X-rays, an upper GI series involves radiation, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about your specific situation. The risks linked to radiation get higher the more you’re exposed to it, so be sure to tell them about any other X-rays or scans you’ve had in the past.

You also should tell your doctor if you’re allergic to or have had any kind of reaction to contrast dyes, iodine, or latex.

After the procedure, there’s a chance of constipation or fecal impaction (when a hard mass of stool gets stuck) if the barium doesn’t get completely flushed out of your system.

You can drive and eat as soon as your upper GI series is over.

Drink lots of water to help flush out the barium. It can turn your poop white and make going to the bathroom hard.

Tell your doctor if you haven't had a bowel movement after 2 days, your stomach hurts a lot, or you have a fever.

A radiologist will study your X-rays and send a report to your doctor.

Depending on what they find, you might need more tests. Or you may start your treatment.