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A CT scan (also commonly called a CAT scan) is an advanced imaging technique that has made life easier for physicians all over the world. It is a diagnostic tool that is being used more and more commonly, including in the use of detecting conditions in pregnant women. Internal organs can be viewed in three-dimensional views through the use of a CT scan.

The use of a CT scan involves a focused beam of x-ray radiation and this is why there are questions about its use in pregnant women. Here is the currently accepted scientific position on the matter.

 Why would a CT scan be performed on a pregnant woman?

The diagnostic tool of choice in a pregnant woman is the use of an ultrasound. There are, however, many non-pregnancy related conditions which cannot be detected with an ultrasound alone and require the use of a CT scan.

These include the presence of blood clots, tumors, skull injury, fractures in the spine, herniated discs, abnormalities and infection in the heart or lungs, and the presence of cysts in different parts of the body.

Risks of getting a CT scan while pregnant

A CT scan is carried out using a dose of x-ray radiation that is higher than in a regular x-ray. All x-rays are carcinogenic in nature and thus it would seem logical that a higher dose of x-ray is potentially more harmful to the developing baby.

A rule of thumb, a CT scan will not be ordered in a pregnant woman unless the benefits far outweigh the risks of exposing the developing baby to the radiation.

It should, however, be remembered that a CT scan uses very focused x-ray beams and so a CT scan of the head or the chest does not pose any risks to the developing baby whatsoever. It is estimated that zero amount of x-ray radiation is felt by the fetus in case of CT scan of the head while .2 mGy (negligible amount) is felt during a CT scan of the chest depending upon what stage the pregnancy has progressed to.

There are certain conditions like appendicitis or other life-threatening conditions where a CT scan may need to be performed that includes the abdomen or the pelvis in its field of view. We recommend deferring to the opinion of your doctor in this conditions because they would have determined a serious risk to the systemic health of the mother to order this scan in the first place.

Can a CT scan in pregnancy cause cancer in the child?

The risk of developing cancer because of a CT scan during pregnancy is estimated to be around 1 in 1000 greater than a child not exposed to the said radiation. The maximum potential for the cancerous effects to take place in the developing child is seen when the exposure is within the first 15 weeks of conception.

If for some reason the total exposure to x-ray radiation is above the 100-150 mGY then the doctor may discuss the increased amount of risk and the possibility of a planned abortion with the mother.

One single CT scan of any area of the body is not a concern but multiple scans can become a problem.

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