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How to minimize your child's medical radiation exposure

By Dr. Jennifer Shu, Special to CNN
updated 11:00 AM EDT, Tue April 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Parents should be cautious about radiation exposure from tests like X-rays and CAT scans
  • Children are more sensitive to their effects and have many years ahead of them
  • Find out if an imaging study that does not use radiation can provide similar information

Editor's note: Dr. Jennifer Shu, CNNHealth's Living Well expert doctor, is a practicing pediatrician and mother of two.

(CNN) -- Q: I took my kid to the ER last night because his stomach hurt, and they ran a CAT scan. Is that normal? Should I be worried about radiation?

A: A new study in this week's Radiology journal reports that the use of computed tomography (CT) imaging -- or "CAT scans" -- in children being evaluated for abdominal pain increased significantly between 1999 and 2007.

The researchers found that during this period, nearly 17 million pediatric visits to an emergency department were made for abdominal pain and that the use of CAT scans was higher in hospitals that primarily care for adults.

There are times when using tests involving exposure to radiation (like X-rays and CAT scans) is life-saving and critically important; however, this report suggests that health providers should be better at balancing the health benefits and medical risks.

An increase in radiation exposure could raise the risk of cancer over a person's lifetime. When it comes to medical treatment, it is important to remember that children are not just small adults -- the effect on their bodies can be different from that seen in adults.

This philosophy is particularly true with medical radiation because children are more sensitive to its effects and have many years ahead of them.

As a parent, you can help minimize your child's exposure to medical radiation.

How to be your child's advocate:

-- Find out if an imaging study that does not use radiation (such as ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI) can provide similar information to that of a CT scan. Following a stepwise evaluation -- for instance, starting with an abdominal ultrasound and then proceeding to CT if more information is needed -- might also be an option.

When a study involving radiation is suggested by a health care provider, parents should try to understand the alternatives as well as the potential issues that might arise if it is not done.

-- Ask if the lowest possible dose of radiation is being used.

-- Inquire whether a lead shield may be used to cover certain body parts (such as the thyroid gland in the neck and the reproductive organs) that do not need to be seen.

Keep in mind that ultimately, a CT scan may be the best diagnostic tool for your child's situation, but you can rest assured that your decision will be an informed one.

For more information, check out the Image Gently campaign or RadiologyInfo.org and talk to your child's physician.

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