A computed tomography (CT) scan is a powerful medical tool that enables doctors to create high-resolution, 3-D images of the body’s internal structures. An advantage of CT scans over conventional x-ray imaging is that CT scan machines can capture soft tissues, blood vessels, and other body parts that standard x-rays can’t visualize.
CT scans are performed to diagnose infections, assess internal injuries, locate bone fractures, look for tumors, guide procedures like biopsies, and much more.
The impressive capabilities of CT scans are possible thanks to x-ray radiation, which allows medical professionals to pass electromagnetic waves through a patient in order to create images of internal structures and conditions.
Because these powerful scans involve radiation, some patients feel concerned and hesitant about agreeing to receive CT scans. Are these concerns valid? Continue reading to find out.
CT Scan Radiation: Everything You Need to Know
A CT scan machine is a large, tube-shaped piece of equipment that takes a series of X-ray images from different angles around the body. During the scan, the patient lies on a bed that moves slowly through the tube while the CT machine rotates around the bed, shooting dozens of x-ray images.
These images can be viewed individually or stacked via computer software to generate detailed 3-D images of the patient’s organs, skeleton, and soft tissues.
Does a CT Scan Use Radiation?
Yes, CT scans produce radiation. This is because CT scans rely on X-rays to generate images and all x-rays generate radiation.
While not all radiation is dangerous (for example, the non-ionizing rays of visible light and radio waves), x-ray radiation falls into the category of ionizing rays. This means that the radiation from a CT scan is capable of removing electrons from the atoms it passes.
How do these ionizing rays affect your cells?
When an atom’s electrons are knocked out of orbit, the atom can degrade into either an ion or an electrically charged atom. In this damaged state, the atom becomes disruptive, crashing around inside the cell and wreaking havoc on molecules and DNA.
Accumulate enough damaged atoms and eventually, radiation can result in health conditions.
How Much Radiation Is in a CT Scan?
Radiation inflicts damage by accumulating over time because unlike other injuries that can heal, x-ray damage is permanent. Fortunately, though, the threshold that separates safe and dangerous radiation levels is quite high.
According to data from the American College of Radiology, roughly 100 mSv is the risk threshold (1 mSv is equivalent to the average accumulated background radiation you’ll encounter in one year). This means that you’d need to accumulate 100 years’ worth of background radiation before having cause for concern.
How does this translate to CT scan radiation?
It depends on the procedure. Here are the typical effective CT scan radiation doses for different types of scans:
- CT Head Scan: 2 mSv
- CT Chest Scan: 7 mSv
- CT Abdomen Scan: 8 mSv
- Coronary CT Angiogram: 16 mSv
While the amount of radiation in CT scans may seem high, it’s important to recognize that patients have nothing to fear from the occasional scan. It’s only when frequent scans are required that you may have cause for concern, and, even then, the risk posed by CT scan radiation is likely far less than the risk of living with an undiagnosed medical condition.
What Are CT Scan Radiation Side Effects?
Is CT scan radiation danger over-exaggerated? Or do these medical procedures represent real risks to patient and medical personnel health?
As already stated, the vast majority of patients have nothing to fear from the occasional CT scan. The threshold for concern is 100 mSv, which could take dozens of scans to hit, and the threshold for specific radiation-induced conditions, like the depression of the blood cell-forming process (500 mSv) or cataracts (5,000 mSv) is much higher.
Instead of radiation, CT scan side effects are almost entirely caused by the contrasting liquid you drink prior to procedures like chest and abdomen scans. These rare side effects include:
- Abdominal cramping
- Skin rash
If you develop any of these rare side effects or have trouble breathing after consuming the contrasting liquid, go to the emergency room immediately.
What Is the CT Scan Radiation Cancer Risk?
When it comes to radiation-induced conditions, cancer is the primary concern on most peoples’ minds. But what is the actual CT scan radiation risk?
According to the FDA: “A CT examination with an effective dose of 10 mSv may be associated with an increase in the possibility of fatal cancer of approximately 1 chance in 2000. This increase in the possibility of fatal cancer from radiation can be compared to the natural incidence of fatal cancer in the U.S. population, about 1 chance in 5 (equal to 400 chances in 2000).”
In other words, the chance of developing cancer from a CT scan is incredibly low and as a patient, it is generally riskier to forgo the scan than to receive it.
CT Scan Radiation Protection for Healthcare Personnel
While the vast majority of patients don’t need to feel concerned about the radiation from a CT scan, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are actually at risk.
This is due to the aforementioned accumulative nature of radiation. Because healthcare workers are exposed to thousands of CT scan radiation doses, they can quickly surpass key risk thresholds unless mitigating efforts are made.
And much more. To learn more about how to protect yourself from the risks of excessive CT scan radiation exposure, browse our digital catalogs or contact Barrier Technologies today.