For Patients: Medical Imaging Safety
Medical X-rays are used in many types of examinations and procedures. Some examples include
- X-ray radiography (to find orthopedic damage, tumors, pneumonias, foreign objects, etc);
- Mammography (to image the internal structures of breasts)
- CT (computed tomography) (to produce cross-sectional images of the body)
- Fluoroscopy (to dynamically visualize the body for example to see where to remove plaque from coronary arteries or where to place stents to keep those arteries open)
- Radiation therapy in cancer treatment.
In addition, many industries and institutions use X-rays:
- To examine constructed materials.
- To conduct sample analyses.
- For security purposes such as baggage screening.
Risks of X-Rays
X-rays can help detect diseases and health conditions but they also have a small potential to harm living tissue. The most significant risks are:
- A small increase in the possibility that a person exposed to X-rays will develop cancer later in life; and
- Cataracts and skin burns at very high levels of radiation exposure.
The risk of developing cancer from radiation exposure is generally small and depends on at least three factors — the amount of radiation dose, the age at exposure, and the sex of the person exposed:
- The lifetime risk of cancer increases the larger the dose and the more X-ray exams a patient undergoes.
- The lifetime risk of cancer is larger for a patient who received X-rays at a younger age than for one who receives them at an older age.
- Women are at a somewhat higher lifetime risk than men for developing radiation-associated cancer after receiving the same exposures at the same ages.
Help Protect Your Health
To help protect your health:
- Be sure to tell the doctor or technologist if you are, or might be, pregnant before having an exam.
- Don’t insist on an imaging exam if the doctor explains there is no need for it.
- Don’t refuse an imaging exam if there’s a clear need for it and the clinical benefit outweighs the small radiation risk.