Parents have been testing me with lots of questions about imaging tests like x-rays and CT scans and whether the radiation from these tests is more of a risk than the benefit of getting the test itself.  Let me give you the proper picture on imaging tests and radiation.

Imaging tests like x-rays and CT scans allow us to see inside the body and find out what is wrong with your child.  These imaging tests use radiation that has been linked to an increased risk of getting cancer later in life, but only if someone is exposed to it often enough. 

Cancer is not a certain result of an imaging test – or tests – but no one wants to increase their risk if they don’t have to.  Most importantly, no imaging test should ever be used in place of another, safer way for your doctor to make the diagnosis, such as taking a careful history of your child’s illness, then examining them and possibly ordering a blood or urine test.

If an imaging test is still needed after these other approaches have been tried, then it is important to choose the test wisely.  You want a test that will result in the best possible diagnosis, but with the least amount of side effects or risk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a member of a multi-organizational group called the Alliance for Radiation Safety in Pediatric Imaging that wants to make sure patients ask about, and health care professionals follow, these four steps when considering an imaging test:

  1. We should only consider an imaging test that uses radiation if there is a definite medical benefit.
  2. We should use the lowest amount of radiation for the test based on size of the child – a concept we call “imaging gently.”
  3. We should use imaging only on the part of the body that needs to be evaluated.
  4. We should use ultrasound and MRI, which do not involve radiation, whenever possible as the preferred imaging method.

It is also important to note that the radiation risk in a single x-ray is very low: it is approximately what you would absorb from the sun’s cosmic radiation on a three-hour airline flight.  In short, we’re talking almost no radiation at all from a single x-ray.

Hopefully tips like these will radiate in your mind the next time you or your child’s health care professional is considering an imaging study that involves the use of radiation.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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