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Did early CT scans increase my son's cancer risk?

Asked by Raheela, Colorado

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My son, who is now a healthy 3-year-old, had six or seven head CT scans along with two MRIs and some X-rays for a head injury he had when he was just 11 months old. I am very concerned about this new study regarding CT scans causing risk to cancer in future. Did we put our son at risk because of those CT scans?

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Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. I am glad to hear that your son is healthy after his head injury. Head injuries can be difficult to evaluate in young children because they do not always show the symptoms of internal bleeding (such as headaches, seizures and vision problems) that may be more obvious in older children and adults. The risk of having a brain injury go undiagnosed and untreated must therefore be balanced with any radiation risks from tests such as CT scans.

To help answer your question, I consulted with Dr. Rick Woodcock, a neuroradiologist at Atlanta Radiology Consultants and director of MRI at St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. He shared the following information:

• CT exams use X-rays in a special way and help provide important information about your health. They may be essential in helping your doctor make an accurate diagnosis. In contrast, MRI exams do not use X-rays and so they don't expose you to radiation risks. This type of study may also be needed for an accurate diagnosis. However, MRIs are used for different reasons and often provide different information from a CT.

• Radiation exposure happens every day. We receive radiation exposure from many nonmedical sources, including the Earth, space and our own bodies. The amount of radiation we receive from medical tests is variable, and for a CT scan, it is equal to about the amount we receive from nonmedical sources of radiation in a year.

• Risks from radiation vary from person to person, depending on factors including background, previous exposure and age.

• The chance of getting cancer, but not its severity, is increased by radiation exposure. The more radiation a person receives, the greater the chance of developing cancer in the future. Rates of cancer in people exposed to very low amounts of excess radiation, such as from routine or single, rather than repeated, medical tests, are similar to the rest of the population.

• The impact of radiation exposure may take decades to show up. The result may be one mutation in a person's genes and therefore may be only a small piece in the development of a disease such as cancer. There is currently no way to "screen" for any damage, so parents might want to be more cautious with a child who has had several previous CT scans and choose observation over imaging, when medically feasible, in the future.

The bottom line: Ultimately, the risks of radiation exposure must be weighed against the risks of not getting medical tests that are needed to help care for you or your family. I encourage all patients to ask questions like these before any medical procedures as you weigh all the risks and benefits involved. If you have more questions, please talk with your child's doctor as well as to the radiologist performing any tests.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has helpful information on radiation risks, as does RadiologyInfo, a public information site of the American College of Radiology and the Radiological Society of North America.

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