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What Is Barium Sulfate?

Diarrhea is one possible side effect of barium sulfate.
Barium sulfate is often given orally before gastrointestinal imaging tests.
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  • Written By: Felicia Dye
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2014
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Barium sulfate is a naturally occurring white solid that may appear slightly off white. It is extracted from the mineral barium. The substance usually has no taste or smell but has on occasion been reported to have a mild fruit odor. This chemical powder is metallic and does not dissolve in water.

There is a limited amount of evidence that suggests this substance may be a carcinogen. It may cause skin and eye irritation if these areas are exposed. It is generally, however, not considered to be hazardous.

This powder is sometimes used in the paint industry as an extender. This means it will increase the quantity of a coating. This usually does not greatly affect the original color, but some people believe this process cheapens the original product.

Barium sulfate has low oil absorption rates. Due to this, it is sometimes used in oil paints. In this capacity, it will be nearly transparent but may distort the color slightly.

In some instances, barium sulfate is used as a whitening agent. Lithopone is a white pigment composed partly of this substance. Lithopone powder can be used for paint, but it is also used in the production of ink, plastic, and rubber.

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Although barium sulfate is not water soluble, it is often made available in a white liquid form called a suspension. It is given to patients who will have medical imaging procedures. The patient is typically instructed to begin drinking the suspension an hour and 30 minutes before the imaging. It may also be introduced into the body by way of an enema.

Once the suspension is inside a person, it allows the radiologist to view areas of the gastrointestinal tract including the esophagus and stomach. This is possible because the areas exposed to the suspension tend to appear white. This allows a good image to be taken of those areas.

There are some negative attributes to consuming barium sulfate suspension, but it has rarely been noted to have severe or fatal effects. Many people find the suspension tends to be heavy, chalky, and that it has an unsavory taste. All suspensions, however, are not the same thickness, and in some, the barium sulfate powder is finer. Many patients also experience side effects such as nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. Constipation can also ensue if a lot of water is not consumed following the imaging procedure.

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