As with other medical procedures, x-rays are safe when used with care. Radiologists and x-ray technologists have been trained to use the minimum amount of radiation necessary to obtain the needed results. The amount of radiation used in most examinations is very small and the benefits greatly outweigh the risk of harm.
X-rays are produced only when a switch is momentarily turned on. As with visible light, no radiation remains after the switch is turned off.
X-rays Over Your Lifetime
The decision to have an X-ray is a medical one, based on the likelihood of benefit from the exam and the potential risk from radiation. For low dose examinations, usually those that involve only films taken by a technologist, this is generally an easy decision. For higher dose exams such as computed tomography (CT) scans and those involving the use of contrast materials (dyes) such as barium or iodine, the radiologist may want to consider your past history of exposure to X-rays. If you have had frequent x-ray exams and change healthcare providers, it is a good idea to keep a record of your X-ray history for yourself. This can help your doctor make an informed decision. It is also very important to tell your doctor if you are pregnant before having an exam that involves the abdomen or pelvic region.
Pregnancy and X-rays
As with any aspect of medical care, knowing that a patient is or could be pregnant is important information. Pregnancy, for example, might explain certain symptoms or medical findings. When a pregnant patient is ill or injured, the physician will carefully select medications to avoid potential risks to the developing child. This is also true of X-rays.
While the vast majority of medical X-rays do not pose a critical risk to a developing child, there may be a small likelihood of causing a serious illness or other complication. The actual risk depends on how far along the pregnancy is and on the type of X-ray. Ultrasound studies, for example, don't use X-rays and have never demonstrated any potential risk to pregnancy. X-ray studies of the head, arms, legs and chest do not usually expose the baby directly to X-rays and typically the technologist who takes the x-rays will implement special precautions to ensure that the baby of a pregnant patient is not directly exposed.
Sometimes patients need examinations of the abdomen or pelvis while they are pregnant. When studies of the abdomen or pelvis are required, the physician may prefer to order a different type of exam for a pregnant patient or reduce the number of X-rays from that which are normally acquired. Therefore it is important that you inform your physician or the X-ray technologist about your reproductive status before the X-ray study is performed.
Most standard X-ray examinations of the abdomen are not likely to pose a serious risk to the child. Some abdominal and pelvic studies such as CT deliver greater amounts of radiation to a developing pregnancy. Informing the radiologist that you are or might be pregnant is important so that your medical care can be planned with both you and your baby in mind. Remember, this is done to optimize medical care by reducing any potential risk.