How to Drink Barium Sulfate Contrast Suspensions for CT Scans

A computed topography (CT) scan of the abdomen or pelvis commonly requires the timely consumption of a considerable amount of barium sulfate suspension. The use of barium sulfate as a contrasting agent is critical to the proper interpretation of the CT scan results. Think of a television set that has a contrast setting: if the contrast is turned all the way down, the screen is nearly blank.

Thus it is important to drink all of the barium sulfate that is prescribed for a CT scan. The typical abdominal or pelvic CT scan appointment requires the patient to fast for three hours (or more) and arrive at least one hour ahead of the scheduled time to begin the experience that is the barium sulfate cocktail. The barium sulfate suspension, while only 2% weight per volume, is thick, milky looking drink that can be best described as tasting like latex paint.

This analogy is appropriate because the barium sulfate will taste different to everyone. The only constant is that no one, at least no sane person, has tasted barium sulfate and asked for more! Hence, here are a few steps that have helped certain persons prepare for, choke down and recover from a suspension of barium sulfate for a CT scan.

Schedule your CT scan for mid-morning. This may be the easiest way to fast for most people: have a late light dinner, skip breakfast the next morning and go to the appointment. This way your stomach will be empty and be able to hold all of the barium sulfate suspension that is forthcoming. Additionally, late afternoon appointments are most likely to be delayed due to someone arriving late, which will inevitably end up forcing you to drink more barium sulfate after you have had your fill.

What Is a Pelvic CT Scan?

Learn More

Try to arrive for your appointment even earlier than the designated time. While the person who takes your prescription, insurance card, etc. may not let you start drinking the barium sulfate right away, the worst thing that can happen is to arrive late and have to furiously drink the suspension within a limited amount of time. The best is to arrive with time to spare, ensuring you have the full allotted time to drink while being as relaxed as the situation warrants.

Turn down the straw, if offered, but accept the cup. While there are a few people who are able to sit there and idly sip barium sulfate down through a straw, I'd wager the majority are more capable of swallowing the stuff at intervals as we will soon discuss, especially those that find the taste displeasing. Use the cup, however, as the original barium sulfate containers are usually not the friendliest of drinking containers.

How to Pass a Hearing Test

Learn More

Shake the stuff like crazy. The administrative person who doles the barium sulfate out will usually give it a flip or two, sometimes providing some agitation. However, really give the container(s) the old heave ho and continue shaking them for the duration of the pre testing period. This is to prevent layers of the suspension being thicker than others, which will make some very difficult to ingest.

Find a nice quite chair in the waiting room with a table, preferably near the door of the CT scanner so you will hear your name called (ask the person behind the desk where this may be). Take a minute to mentally prepare yourself; remember that a good scan depends on your ability to force the barium sulfate down. This is one time you have control over normally uncontrollable situation. Take it personally and as a challenge if that is what motivates you.

Pour yourself a tall glass of the barium sulfate suspension, note the time on your watch and begin drinking. How you ingest, what amount and over what time period is completely a personal decision. No matter what your method, keep an eye on the time and try to set goals of set amounts consumed by certain times over your waiting period, not getting down on yourself if you get behind. Chugging will tend to put bigger dents in the total amount that lends to positive reinforcement. Inevitably, the bursts will become shorter and lesser in amount the more full you get until you can see finish line. Sipping can be looked at as slow and steady wins the race.

Do your best to drink all that you can. No one can make you drink it except for yourself. Remember that the radiology technician will give you a small amount the suspension right before the CT scan, to ensure the GI tract is coated at the time of testing.

Eat your comfort food after the exam if you are hungry and keep near a toilet. Reactions vary, but usually the stuff doesn't stick around long to chat. So if you have a long ride home or another scheduling conflict, plan accordingly.


Having a family member or friend come is another personal decision. Sometimes the badgering helps; sometimes you want to the throw the drink at them. Some radiology clinics offer refrigerated Barium Sulfate to further dampen the taste. Inquire if this is a possibility at your clinic.


This article should in no way be construed as professional medical opinion. Always follow the directions and advice of your health care team and the professionals at the CT scan office.