Aspiration of barium sulphate is a well-recognized complication, occurring accidentally during examinations of the upper gastrointestinal system using contrast media. Rarely, large amounts of barium sulphate are inadvertently aspirated into the lung. Certain conditions affecting the anatomical and functional integrity of the oropharynx and oesophagus suggest predisposing factors. Aspiration of barium sulphate is not expected to cause severe lung injury due to its relatively non-irritant matter. On the other hand, acute inflammation or even death attributed either to high or low density preparations of barium sulphate, have been reported.
We present two patients, both with a history of schizophrenia, who developed acute respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation, following aspiration of large amounts of barium, during an upper gastrointestinal radiographic contrast study. One patient died following massive aspiration which led to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, while the other, although sub- acutely complicated by pneumonia, was successfully treated.
Beside presentation of cases, several aspects of investigation, differential diagnosis, treatment and prevention are discussed. Complications of barium sulphate aspiration depend upon the density and quantity of the aspirated solution, the extent of tracheobronchial distribution and the general physical condition of the patient. In severe cases, early treatment and close follow up with high-resolution computed tomography are mandatory to prevent progression towards fibrosis. Patients with psychiatric disorders, apart from other conditions predisposing to aspiration, should be dealt with particular caution, when performing the above-mentioned procedures.
Key words: barium, barium sulphate, aspiration pneumonia, lung CT, lung scintigraphy