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Radiation and pregnancy

  • Your doctor may have ordered a test or scan for you that involves radiation. There are a number of scans that use radiation to help medical staff see inside the body. These include: X-ray, CT, fluoroscopy, angiography, nuclear medicine and PET.

    If you are pregnant, or it is possible you are pregnant, and you are unsure if your scan involves radiation, you should speak to a staff member before your scan. Some scans do not involve radiation (e.g. ultrasound) and sometimes these scans can be used as an alternative. If there is no alternative scan, there may be some risks associated with the radiation exposure to your unborn baby – the doctor will explain these to you before the scan.

    Minimising radiation dose

    Before you have an X-ray or any other form of medical imaging, it is important to let your doctor and medical imaging technologist know if you are pregnant, or if it’s possible you’re pregnant.

    Unborn babies are more sensitive to radiation than an adult, so it is important to take precautionary steps, which may involve an alternative examination. Scans such as ultrasound do not use radiation and may be a suitable alternative so that there is no radiation risk to your baby.

    Where only a particular scan can be used, medical imaging staff will take extra steps to ensure any radiation dose your baby might be exposed to is kept as low as possible.

    What are the risks?

    Being exposed to radiation increases the chance of an unborn baby developing cancer later in life, but this increase in risk is only very small – the risk increases by about 0.1 per cent.

    In a normal pregnancy, the rate of childhood cancer occurring is very low (0.2 per cent). After a medical imaging scan during pregnancy (with a standard dose of radiation), the probability of a child having childhood cancer is increased slightly to about 0.3 per cent.

    There are some other risks associated with higher doses of radiation, but you are unlikely to be exposed to these levels during medical imaging. Your doctor will explain these risks to you if it is relevant to your specific situation (e.g. radiotherapy treatment).

    What if I am pregnant carer?

    If you are a carer for a child having a scan involving radiation (e.g. X-ray) the dose received by your unborn baby will be even lower than if you were having the scan yourself. However, please let the medical imaging technologist know that you are pregnant as they will provide you with advice to minimise the radiation dose to you and your unborn baby. This may include wearing a lead apron or leaving the room during the examination.

    Background radiation

    We are all exposed to background radiation from the natural environment all around us. Very low amounts of radiation come from everyday items (e.g. from the sun, from rocks and soil, and even from food and drink). We live with this natural background radiation in our environment all the time, without any negative effect on our health or body.

    This natural background radiation gives every person in Australia a small radiation dose each year. Australia's level of natural background radiation is quite low compared to many other parts of the world. Some countries have a natural radiation dose several times higher than Australia, with no negative effects to people who live in these areas. During pregnancy you baby will receive about half of what you receive in a year.

    Key points to remember

    • If you are pregnant and require a scan, you should tell the doctor, nurse or medical imaging technologist before your scan so that the risk to your baby can be minimised.
    • Some scans do not involve radiation (e.g. ultrasound) and sometimes these scans can be used as an alternative
    •  Where only a particular scan can be used, medical imaging staff will take extra steps to ensure any radiation dose your baby might be exposed to is kept as low as possible.

    For more information

    • If you have any further questions about medical radiation exposure during pregnancy, contact your medical imaging or radiology department.
    •  Speak to your GP, medical imaging technologist (or your treating doctor or nurse in hospital) if you are pregnant and need a scan or test that might involve radiation.
    •  Kids Health Info fact sheet: CT scan
    •  Kids Health Info fact sheet: X-ray

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    Can I have an X-ray examination if I’m pregnant?

    Yes. As long as the clinical benefits exceed the very small radiation risk, there is nothing stopping the use of X-rays during pregnancy.

    With modern equipment and good technique, most examinations can be carried out during pregnancy without specific consideration for the baby.

    For other examinations, especially where imaging will be over the abdominal and pelvic regions, careful consideration of the benefits and risks are needed. If you are pregnant you should tell the doctor, nurse or medical imaging technologist before your scan.

    Can babies have X-ray examinations?

    Yes. As long as the clinical benefits exceed the very small radiation risk, there is nothing stopping the use of X-rays on babies or children.

    With modern equipment and good technique, the radiation dose to the baby is minimal.

    If I have been exposed to radiation, but I didn’t know I was pregnant at the time, what should I do?

    If you were unaware of your pregnancy and a radiation procedure was performed, please contact your medical imaging or radiology department. Each hospital or clinic will have a procedure in place for providing an estimate of the radiation dose received by your baby and advice regarding the corresponding risk.

    Usually the risk to your baby is minimal, but a radiation dose estimate and risk advice needs to be provided.

    How do you know that the dose of radiation my baby receives won’t harm their development? I have read that some scans increase the risk of miscarriage – is this true?

    The estimated radiation dose received by an unborn baby during some of the most common medical imaging examinations is usually less than 10 mSv (units of radiation dose and measure of harm). Research shows that the radiation dose that is harmful to babies (e.g. causing harm to growth or development) is greater than 100 mSv.

    The amount of radiation a baby is exposed to during pregnancy during routine diagnostic and nuclear medicine procedures is well below the known threshold for causing harm to growth or development.


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Medical Imaging department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Developed July 2020.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.

Disclaimer  

This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.