Concerns about radiation exposure have dominated the news recently. From concerns over x-ray exposure in pregnancy and infants, to the potassium iodide pill controversy (after the natural disasters in Japan), it’s well understood that radiation isn’t good for us.
But what about the radiation exposure that children face when they have a CT scan?
CT scans in children are on the rise. According to a new study, more emergency room doctors are ordering CT scans in children. The number of actual visits to the ER hasn’t increased (so you can’t blame this increase on more accidents), but the number of CT scans has surged five fold!
In 1995, an estimated 330,000 children received CT scans. By 2008, this number had increased to 1.65 million! Put into percentage – the CT scan rate for children has increased from 1 percent to nearly 6 percent in over a decade.
The most common reasons that CT scans were performed in children include a head injury, abdominal pain, and headache.
This increase in CT scans in children has prompted healthcare professionals to worry about the levels of radiation that children are exposed to. The major concern is that children in general hospitals are being exposed to adult doses of radiation, since most of these facilities don’t reduce the radiation dose (like a children’s hospital would).
Children are more sensitive to radiation exposure for several reasons. One – kids are smaller than adults. Two, children are growing, and they have more rapidly dividing cells. This puts kids at higher risk for developing radiation-related cancers.
The study is published online in the journal, Radiology.
Why the Increase in CT Scans in Children?
According to Time magazine, there are a number of reasons that CT imaging scans have increased dramatically. The technological improvements in CT scans being a major reason. Modern CT scans offer doctors faster, more precise images – which make them useful in the emergency room.
In 1995, abdominal CT scans were rarely used. Back then, abdominal CT scans had poor resolution, and there was little research to support its use. Over a decade later, in 2008, there were major improvements in CT scans, and abdominal scans were used in 15 to 21 percent of ER visits.
An abdominal CT scan has an effective dose of radiation that is seven times higher than a head CT scan.
Another reason that CT scans in children have increased – more doctors are scared of lawsuits. Doctors are ordering CT scans to avoid getting sued for missed diagnoses. Dr. David B. Larson, MD, one of the study’s authors, told the AP:
“If you send a kid home [without a CT scan] and it turns out you missed an abnormality, not many juries are going to be sympathetic.”
Larson, who is directory of quality improvement in the department of radiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, wrote in a press release:
“We need to think creatively about how to partner with each other, with ordering clinicians and with CT manufacturers to ensure that all children are scanned only when it is appropriate and with appropriate techniques.”
CT Scans in Children – Questions to Ask
CT scans come with radiation risks, so if the doctor is recommending a CT scan, you should ask yourself and your doctor the following questions:
• Is the CT scan absolutely necessary? Are there other ways of diagnosis my child’s problem?
• What vulnerable areas will be scanned? (Eyes, reproductive organs, thyroid, etc.) Is there another type of scan that can be performed instead? For example, an ultrasound or MRI?
• Does the radiology department of the hospital follow lower radiation guidelines for children?
In some cases, a radiation scan is necessary. In the case of a trauma, it can be the difference between life and death. Like with any other medical test, the information gained from the CT scan should always outweigh the risk of having the test performed.
Risks of CT Scans in Children
The Alliance for Radiation Safety in Pediatric Imaging states that there is strong evidence that exposure to radiation levels during a CT scan can slightly increase the risk of future cancer. The risk for developing cancer depends on many factors, but for every 1,000 children who have a single CT abdominal scan, one child will get cancer.
In a nutshell, the risk of CT scan causing cancer is 1 in 1,000.
You should examine this risk against your child’s risk of cancer in his lifestyle. Of those 1,000 children, 200 will eventually develop cancer in his lifestyle, regardless of his exposure to medical radiation.