Illustration for article titled 5 Things to Know Before Getting a CT Scan

Like any medical procedure, getting a Computed Tomography (CT) scan can be intimidating. Learning what to expect can lessen your anxiety and let you more completely understand this important technology. With that in mind, here are five things you should know about CT scans.

Preparing for Your Scan

Ask your doctor or the CT facility whether you’ll need to fast before the scan. Be sure your doctor knows the medications you take and any conditions you have now and have had before, especially diabetes (in case you have to fast) and kidney problems (which may be exacerbated by contrast drugs). If you have any history of drug allergies, especially to iodine or barium, stress this point as these are usual drugs used in contrast agents. Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or if you’re nursing. If you’re nursing, plan to save a couple of days of milk because mothers are often advised to wait 48 hours after a CT scan to resume nursing.

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More About Contrast

Contrast, also called dye, is used to obtain more detailed images of some structures of the body. Contrast can be given orally, by IV, via a lumbar puncture to image the spine, or rectally to image the colon.

If oral contrast is required, you’ll be given a glass of a barium-based liquid that many people find chalky. It takes 60 to 90 minutes to circulate through your system. Any other type of contrast will be given after you’re taken back for your scan. Iodine-based contrast can make people feel a rush of warmth throughout their body, and sometimes a metallic taste in their mouth. These are temporary and normal. However if you experience any symptoms of serious allergic reaction, such as swelling or difficulty breathing, tell the CT technician immediately.

The CT Room

The CT technician will leave the room before the scan begins, but he or she can still see, hear, and speak to you from the control booth. Generally no one else is permitted in the room with you, but a parent may be allowed to stay with a child patient if a protective apron is worn.

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After the Scan

For the most part, you can go about your normal activities after a CT scan. As mentioned, mothers may be asked to wait 48 hours before resuming nursing. If you were given contrast, drinking lots of fluids will help flush it out of your system.

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You might be asked to take a report or images to your doctor, alternately they may be sent directly by the radiologist’s office. Technology known as picture archiving and communication systems (PACS) has made storing and sharing CT and other imaging data easy between medical offices. Radiology PACS technology allow for secure but fast access to your imaging reports and pictures so that films and physical storage media don’t have to be mailed or delivered from one office to another. This makes sure your doctors can easily reference the information they need to best treat you.

CT and Radiation

Being exposed to radiation is frightening to many people. Experts agree, though, that the benefits of CT scans greatly outweigh any risk from their radiation. While the risk from CT is small, doctors are careful not to use CT scans without good reason. Children’s bodies are more susceptible to negative effects of radiation, so CT is used even more sparingly with young patients. Newer CT machines can scan more quickly, meaning less overall exposure.

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CT technology has become an important part of modern medicine, and its role is only growing. Many, if not most, people will at some point need a CT scan. It’s helpful, then, for patients and potential patients to know more about these procedures. Hopefully this article has served that purpose so that you can be a more informed participant in your healthcare.

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