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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- FDA https://www.drugs.com/pro/gastrografin.html.
- 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
Absolutely! It could be related to alpha-gal (galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose) allergy (AGA), a condition found in thousands of Americans1. AGA (also known as red meat or mammalian allergy) is a novel form of IgE-mediated anaphylaxis that typically occurs 3-6 hrs (not immediately) after ingestion of mammalian meat (beef, pork, lamb, bison, goat, vension); turkey, chicken, and fish do not contain alpha-gal1,2 . Another unique feature of AGA is that it seems to develop in adult life3.
What’s even more fascinating about AGA is its presumed causal relationship with prior bites of Amblyomma americanum (the lone star tick)4,5, found in many southern, midwestern and eastern states in the US (Figure). The proposed mechanism of sensitization is that tick saliva contains alpha-gal (possibly from feeding on deer or other mammals), which causes production of IgE to this oligosaccharide5. When mammalian meat (in our patient, a hamburger) is ingested by the sensitized individual, an anaphylactic reaction may ensue. The delay in reaction is thought to be due to the time it takes for alpha-gal to be absorbed from the gut4.
The story doesn’t end here! Some medications contain alpha-gal due to inert ingredients such as gelatin or magnesium stearate of bovine sources. At least one report of anaphylaxis in a patient with AGA has been blamed on medications with bovine-derived magnesium stearate6. Currently, the FDA does not require manufacturers to disseminate this information, so when in doubt, individual drug manufacturers should be contacted.
Next time you see an anaphylactoid reaction of unclear cause, think about alpha-gal as well!
Figure: Lone start tick and its distribution in USA (Courtesy of CDC).
- Van Nunen S. Galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, mammalian meat and anaphylaxis:a world-wide phenomenon? Curr Treat Options Allergy 2014;1:262-77.
- Kar I, Gong M, Muglia C, et al. Alpha-gal (mammalian meat) allergy: implications for pharmacists. Pharmacy Times, May 27, 2015.
- Commins SP, Platts-Mills TAE. Anaphylaxis syndromes related to a new mammalian cross-reactive carbohydrate determinant. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2009;124:652-57.
- Commins SP, Platts-Mills TA. Delayed anaphylaxis to red meat in patients with IgE specific for galactose alpha-1, 3-galactose (alpha-gal). Curr Allergy Asthma Res 2013;13:72-77.
- Steinke JW, Platts-Mills TAE, Commins SP. The alpha gal story: lessons learned from connecting the dots. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2015;135:589-97. This is a must read for anyone interested in the subject!
- Muglia C, Kar I, Gong M, et al. Anaphylaxis to medications containing meat byproducts in an alpha-gal sensitized individual. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract 2015; 3: 796-97.
Patients with shellfish allergy appear not to have a significantly higher rate of allergic reactions to iodinated contrast media compared to patients with history of atopy, such as asthma or other food allergies 1,2. When true shellfish allergy occurs, it is caused by an immunological reaction to the protein, not iodine, content of the food ingested. “Iodine allergy” cannot exist because iodine is found throughout our bodies and is essential to life.
The typical IV contrast-related adverse reaction is caused by non-IgE-mediated mast cell and basophil degranulation due to the high osmolality of these agents. Because the resultant “anaphylactoid” reaction is not associated with prior immune system memory, its risk is not increased by previous exposure to IV contrast. Premedication with corticosteroids and diphenhydramine may be effective in reducing the risk of such reactions, but is not routinely recommended in patients with isolated history of shellfish allergy2.
- Schabelman E, Witting M. The relationship of radioconstrast, iodine, and seafood allergies: a medical myth exposed. J Emerg Med 2010;39: 701-707.
- Westermann-Clark E, Pepper AN, Talreja N, Lockey RF. Debunking myths about “allergy” to radioconstrast media in an academic institution. Postgrad Med 2015;127:295-300.