When evaluating for an esophageal perforation, is a water-soluble contrast agent such as Gastrografin a better and safer alternative to barium swallow study?

Water-soluble contrast agents (WCAs) (eg, meglumine diatrizoate or Gastrografin) are often ordered as the initial radiographic test for evaluation of esophageal perforation or leaks, followed by barium swallow if the test is negative because small leaks are better detected with the more radiopaque barium1.  Such practice, however, is based on extrapolation of data on the deleterious effect of barium when extravasated into the peritoneal cavity, not the mediastinum1.   In fact, clinical evidence linking mediastinitis to extravasated barium is lacking, and even in experimental studies, injection of barium into the mediastinum of cats have failed to cause clinically significant mediastinitis2.

When ordering a contrast swallow study, no medium should be considered totally safe or effective in detecting esophageal perforations or leaks and WCAs are no different. Potential disadvantages of WCAs include: 1. Inferior sensitivity (as low as 50%)—due to decreased radio-opacity—when compared to barium3; 2. Risk of pulmonary edema—occasionally lethal— when aspirated into the lung due to high osmolality (analogous to salt water drowning) and intense inflammatory reaction4,5; 3. Contraindication in the setting of tracheoesophageal fistula,6; 4. Risk of serious allergic reaction due to reabsorption of iodinated compounds1; and 5. Added exposure to radiation and cost of testing when the swallow study is repeated with barium.  For these reasons, the standard practice of an initial WCA followed by a barium swallow`study if the former is negative, has been questioned, with some centers foregoing the WCA study altogether in favor of barium swallow in certain patients 1,6.

In short, when evaluating for esophageal perforation, WCAs should not categorically be considered a “better” or “safer” alternative to barium; in certain situations, barium may be the preferred agent. When in doubt, input from a thoracic surgeon is recommended.  



  1. Gollub MJ, Bains MS. Barium sulfate: a new (old) contrast agent for diagnosis of postoperative esophageal leaks. Radiology 1997;202:360-62. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9015057
  2. James AE, Montali RJ, Chaffee V, et al. Barium or gastrografin: which contrast media for diagnosis of esophageal tears? Gastroenterology 1975;68:1103-1113. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1126592
  3. Berry BE, Ochsner JL. Perforation of the esophagus: a 30 year review. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 1973;65:1-7. http://www.jpedsurg.org/article/0022-3468(73)90248-0/abstract
  4. Trulzsch DV, PenmetsaA, Karim A, et al. Gastrografin-induced aspiration pneumonia: A lethal complication of computed tomography. South Med J 1992;85:1255-56. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1470976
  5. Tuladhar R, Patole S, Whitehall J. Gastrografin aspiration in a neonate with tracheoesophageal fistula. J Paediatr Child Health 2000; 36:94-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10723703
  6. FDA https://www.drugs.com/pro/gastrografin.html.
  7. Roh S, Iannettoni MD, Keech JC, et al. Role of barium swallow in diagnosing clinically significant anastomotic leak following esophagectomy. Korean J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 2016;49:99-109. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4825910/pdf/kjtcv-49-099.pdf


When evaluating for an esophageal perforation, is a water-soluble contrast agent such as Gastrografin a better and safer alternative to barium swallow study?

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