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Reducing Radiation from Medical X-rays

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The risks of medical X-rays include

  • a small increase in the chance of developing cancer later in life
  • developing cataracts and skin burns following exposure to very high levels of radiation

The small risk of cancer depends on several factors:

  • The lifetime risk of cancer increases as a person undergoes more X-ray exams and the accumulated radiation dose gets higher.
  • The lifetime risk is higher for a person who received X-rays at a younger age than for someone who receives them at an older age.
  • Women are at a somewhat higher lifetime risk than men for developing cancer from radiation after receiving the same exposures at the same ages.

The risk of cataracts and skin burns are mainly associated with repeated or prolonged interventional fluoroscopy procedures. These types of procedures show a continuous X-ray image on a monitor (an X-ray "movie") to determine, for example, where to remove plaque from coronary arteries.

"The benefits of medical X-rays far outweigh their risks," says CDR Sean Boyd, U.S. Public Health Service, an engineer and chief of FDA's Diagnostic Devices Branch. "And everyone involved with medical X-rays can do their part to reduce radiation exposure—whether they're a consumer or patient, doctor, physicist, radiologist, technologist, manufacturer, or installer."

Steps for Consumers

Consumers have an important role in reducing radiation risks from medical X-rays. FDA recommends these steps:

Ask your health care professional how an X-ray will help. How will it help find out what's wrong or determine your treatment? Ask if there are other procedures that might be lower risk but still allow a good assessment or treatment for your medical situation.

Don't refuse an X-ray. If your health care professional explains why it is medically needed, then don't refuse an X-ray. The risk of not having a needed X-ray is greater than the small risk from radiation.

Don't insist on an X-ray. If your health care professional explains there is no need for an X-ray, then don't demand one.

Tell the X-ray technologist in advance if you are, or might be, pregnant.

Ask if a protective shield can be used. If you or your children are getting an X-ray, ask whether a lead apron or other shield should be used.

Ask your dentist if he/she uses the faster (E or F) speed film for X-rays. It costs about the same as the conventional D speed film and offers similar benefits with a lower radiation dose. Using digital imaging detectors instead of film further reduces radiation dose.

Know your X-ray history. "Just as you may keep a list of your medications with you when visiting the doctor, keep a list of your imaging records, including dental X-rays," says Ohlhaber. When an X-ray is taken, fill out the card with the date and type of exam, referring physician, and facility and address where the images are kept. Show the card to your health care professionals to avoid unnecessary duplication of X-rays of the same body part. Keep a record card for everyone in your family.

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WebMD Public Information from the FDA

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