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Children's Health

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X-Rays, Scans, Radiation, and Kids

What Parents Need to Know Before the Doctor or Dentist Orders a Scan

What Are the Risks?

You may have heard about a study showing that kids who have two to three CT scans were nearly three times as likely to develop a brain tumor or leukemia in the decade following their first scan, compared to children who were not scanned.

But you should know that it's very unlikely that a child will develop a brain tumor or leukemia -- scan or no scan. The odds that a child will develop a brain tumor or leukemia are very low to begin with, and they're still low, even if that number triples.

Put another way, experts estimate that 10,000 CT scans would lead to one additional case of cancer.

Kids are smaller than adults, so they get a higher dose of radiation unless the scanning machine is adjusted for them. It's not uncommon for a child to get an adult-sized dose of radiation, especially if they're scanned at a general hospital.

General hospitals, where 90% of child imaging occurs, don't always change the settings on their scanners. Children's hospitals, on the other hand, routinely adjust their machines to compensate for a child's size.

The FDA has urged makers of medical scanning equipment to make new devices that would minimize the radiation dose delivered to children.

Lowering the Risks of Radiation to Kids

It's important to use the lowest dose possible with scanning a child. But it's even more important to avoid unnecessary scans in the first place.

There's a growing body of medical evidence questioning the use of CT scans in these circumstances:

  • After a child suffers blunt trauma, such as a blow to the head after a fall.
  • To evaluate seizures or chronic headaches.
  • As the main tool a doctor uses to diagnose appendicitis.

"We've seen kids who've been 8 or 10 years old who've already had six CT scans. They come in multiple times for belly pain to an ER and they get scanned. And sometimes it's at several ERs so the doctors who are ordering the scans don't really even realize how many the child has had," Pranikoff says.

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