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Overview

A computerized tomography scan, better known as a CT scan, is a special investigation that combines a series of X-ray pictures which are taken from different angles by a circle-shaped machine through which the patient is passed through. CT scans do, therefore, use radiation.

The device uses computer processing to create sliced images of anatomical structures such as soft tissues, bones, and blood vessels.

A CT scan is a very useful investigation as it helps to:

  • Determine the precise location of a blood clot, tumour, or infection.
  • Diagnose bone or muscle disorders such as fractures.
  • Discover and monitor conditions such as heart disease, liver masses, lung nodules, and cancer.
  • Find internal injuries and the location of internal bleeds.
  • Assist with guiding procedures such as radiation therapy, biopsies, and interventional surgeries.

Risks

Since CT scans do expose one to ionizing radiation, there are certain risks associated with the investigation such as a slightly increased risk of developing cancer.

With that being said, it's important to point out that small doses of radiation are used to perform CT scans and have not been shown to cause any long-term complications. The benefits of this test have been proven to outweigh the risks possibly associated with it. 

Regarding pregnant women, it is unlikely that the radiation emitted by a CT scan would cause any issues to the developing fetus but doctors may rather recommend performing another investigation that doesn't make use of radiation such as an ultrasound or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

A special dye called contrast material may need to be administered to a patient having a CT scan performed on them in order to help highlight the areas of the body that are being investigated. This product can be administered by mouth or inserted into the rectum, but can also be injected through a vein in the arm so that it can travel throughout the body and highlight internal organs that may contain pathology.

Side Effects of Contrast Material

It's important to first mention that reactions to and side effects caused by contrast material are rare and that they can be mild but they can also be life-threatening.

The two main types of contrast material are barium and iodine. The former is ingested orally or given rectally and the latter is the one that is injected through a vein. Iodine-based contrasts have been noted as the ones where patients experienced problems such as allergic reactions and decreased kidney function after administration of the product.

If the drug leaks into nearby tissue, such as may occur when the intravenous catheter that needs to be passed into the vein infiltrates the surrounding tissue, a toxic reaction may occur resulting in inflammation and swelling of the affected area which may lead to compression of the surrounding nerves and blood vessels.  

The administration of a contrast material may cause a metallic taste and/or smell in some patients. This may be a reason why some individuals mention that they experience a metallic taste or smell when they are having a CT scan performed on them.

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