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Is it safe to undergo CT scans that involve radiation exposure?

Get to know about the risks that this technology involves and ways to minimize them.

eir healthcare medmodular hospital room
Image: EIR Healthcare

Radiation that is used for medical purposes is not harmless for human bodies. Patients should be exposed to radiological examinations and treatments only when absolutely necessary. Professionals need to observe safety precautions in their daily work and supervisory authorities need to check how efficiently they do it. However, you should not get stressed when a doctor recommends you should get a CT scan. From this article, you will get to know unbiased information about the impact of this technology on your organism.

How Does Computed Tomography Work?

This method enables doctors to diagnose diverse types of health problems. X-rays pass through the patient’s body, creating accurate images of what is going on inside. When professionals examine these pictures, they can assess the state of the patient’s blood vessels, tissues, and internal organs.

The radiation that is used during this procedure belongs to the ionizing type. Potentially, it might damage your DNA and cause cancer — but only if a person is exposed to large doses over a long period of time. Ionizing radiation is naturally present in the environment. Every day, we get tiny doses from the sun, rocks, soil and electric appliances. Radon gas is radioactive too — it can be found in window casements, floor drains, cracks in foundation walls, and other elements of houses where we live. This background radiation does not affect our health.

To measure the amount of radiation in medicine, professionals use the millisievert (mSv) unit. Some parts of our bodies require larger doses than others. In the table below, you can compare the doses for different types of scans.

To make a certain part of the body show up more clearly on the images, doctors might use a contrast. Before carrying out the second scan, they might ask the patient to drink a special liquid or they might shot it into their veins. In this case, the radiation dose will increase. During a belly and pelvis scan, the patient will be exposed to around 20 mSv, equal to approximately 7 years of background radiation. During a head scan, they will be exposed to 4 mSv, equal to approximately 1 year and 4 months of background radiation.

Compared to mammograms or X-rays, CT scans involve larger doses of radiation. But this technique gives more detailed and precise pictures, so this effort is entirely justified.

Type of a CT scanThe doseEqual to approximately X years of background radiation
Lung cancer screening1.5 mSv6 months
Head2 mSv8 months
Cardiac (for calcium scoring)3 mSv1 year
Colonography6 mSv2 years
Spine6 mSv2 years
Chest7 mSv2 years
Belly and pelvis10 mSv3 years
Coronary angiography12 mSv4 years

How Dangerous Is It?

Before computer tomography was invented, doctors would resort to diagnostic surgery to check what is going on inside the body. This invasive method was much more harmful than a CT scan. Today, there are no safer alternatives to exploratory surgery than radiological examinations.

After just one CT scan, you will not develop cancer. The benefits of this method outweigh any potential hazards. Thanks to this procedure, the doctor will get exhaustive information about your health issues. It will enable them to quickly find the right treatment and you will have high chances for a complete recovery.

Certain body parts are more sensitive than others. Cells in the human lungs, breasts, bone marrow and thyroid gland divide faster than in other types of tissues. Radiation might damage them more than other organs. For this reason, you should avoid repetitive lungs or thyroid gland scans.

For patients diagnosed with Crohn’s disease or kidney stones, repetitive scans are inevitable. They help doctors to monitor the improvement or deterioration of their health. Professionals will not set a maximum of scans that a person can have — they will keep carrying out the examinations as long as it is necessary. Yet the more CT sessions a patient undergoes, the higher their cancer risks.

These risks are a bit higher among female patients. Compared to grown-ups, children are more vulnerable to radiation since the cells of their bodies are dividing faster than in adult organisms. Plus, kids have more years ahead of them in which they could get cancer from radiation.

How Can You Minimize Your Exposure to Radiation During CT Scans?

Make sure that the facility where you undergo the scan was accredited by a professional healthcare organization. It must have a certificate that allows it to carry out computed tomography.

Never insist on a CT scan. Instead, ask your doctor whether there are safer alternatives to this procedure. It might be ultrasound or MRI, for instance — these methods do not rely on radiation.

If the scan is inevitable, make sure you keep copies of its results. When you see your doctor next time, you will not need to repeat the procedure. Also, copies will come in handy if you visit another healthcare facility.

Patients who need to have multiple CT scans should keep a chart of them so that their doctors know how frequently they were exposed to radiation. The larger the interval between any two scans, the better.

Some people think that they should undergo whole-body computed tomography every few years to timely detect any potential health problems. This is not true. First, such an examination cannot reveal all health hazards. Second, a disease might develop in between two scans. Third, it is enough to have regular conventional check-ups to prevent health issues. The results of a blood test and many other non-radioactive methods might reveal a disease just as efficiently as a CT scan.

Final Thoughts

Computed tomography is not 100% safe — but its benefits outweigh its risks. To increase the safety of this procedure, you should do it only when there is no other way out. After just one or two scans, you will be highly unlikely to develop lethal cancer. For maximum safety, undergo this examination only in certified healthcare facilities.

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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