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How Safe Are X-Rays & Imaging Tests During Pregnancy

Poster of Anderson diagnostics & Labs depicting a pregnant woman with a smiling face watching her fetus in Xrays
Anderson Team
October 5, 2021
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

Everyone tells you to be extra safe when you are pregnant. Even if nobody does, you are naturally more cautious because your instinct tells you to be so. However, there might come a time when you may experience illness or injuries that call for x-rays and imaging tests. If it is a musculoskeletal injury, your orthopaedician will recommend an x-ray. This could be quite tricky because it is well-known that x-rays are not ideal for pregnant women. So are imaging tests. Therefore, what will you do?

Our blog aims to bring clarity about the safety of x-rays and imaging tests for pregnant women. We shall also explore the answers to many questions that arise if you, unfortunately, face such a situation.

Can X-Rays Harm Your Unborn Child?

The answer to this question glimmers with a silver lining of hope. Fortunately, studies have revealed that x-rays have a very low potential to harm the foetus. A single diagnostic x-ray done with proper precaution does not pose any risk to the unborn child due to the low radiation levels.

There are four factors to consider while subjecting a pregnant lady to x-rays:

  1. The body part that needs to be diagnosed
  2. Radiation dosage
  3. Pregnancy stage
  4. Precautionary measures

Normally, only the body part that needs to be examined is exposed directly to the x-rays beams. However, for pregnant women, even the slightest carelessness can become a costly mistake. X-rays of the pelvis, lower back, abdomen, legs, and kidneys can expose the foetus to direct beams if the preventive measures aren't followed. Also, at various stages of pregnancy, the foetus can be injured by extremely high radiation doses. So, the thumb rule here is to follow the precautionary measures to ensure a safe x-ray test.

How Safe Are CT Scans, MRIs and Ultrasounds?

When it comes to pregnancy, doctors are vigilant and will not resort to testing with radiation unless it's absolutely necessary. As far as CT scans are concerned, the radiation exposure is very minimal, although the levels depend on the test type and area of the body. Ultrasounds and MRIs done in diagnostic labs are generally safe for pregnant women. However, during MRIs, technologists should not use gadolinium contrast unless it is required.

X-Ray Radiation: What Is The Safest Level Of Exposure?

Here's a little scientific fact to help you understand x-ray radiation: An x-ray radiation is measured in rad or its fraction millirad. One rad is equal to a thousand millirad. Using this metric, the radiation exposure for single diagnostic x-rays is listed below:

Diagnostic x-rays rarely exceed 5 rad. It would take more than 50 chest x-rays and 5000 leg and arm x-rays to reach 5 rad exposure levels. Besides, studies show that more than 10 rad exposure is harmful to the foetus. Therefore, a musculoskeletal x-ray - especially one not directed to the abdomen or torso - is much weaker and exposes the foetus to far less radiation.

Risks of imaging tests for pregnant women

So, if one-time diagnostic x-rays are quite safe for the foetus, does the pregnant mother face any risks? The truth is this: both pregnant and non-pregnant women of the same age face the same risks associated with imaging tests. There are two types of risks for anyone who is exposed to ionising radiation.

  • Short-term or deterministic risks result from prolonged CT scans or interventional fluoroscopic procedures done for seriously ill patients. Damages may include skin burns and hair loss on the body parts exposed to large x-ray doses.
  • Long-term or stochastic risk indicates a very small possibility of cancer or genetic damage due to radiation exposure.

It is important to remember that each individual has a different way of reacting to radiation due to our genetics and inherited characteristics. Calculating the risk involved for each person is almost an impossible process. It is only possible to estimate the risks by referring to large populations and considering the "average" risks associated with that population.

When you are pregnant, your safety is your priority. Hence, here's a list of questions that will clarify your doubts about this topic.

5 Important Queries About Imaging Tests And Pregnancy

1. Why should you inform doctors about your pregnancy before an imaging test?

X-rays emit radiation that can be harmful to the unborn child. When you inform doctors about your pregnancy, they can take the necessary precautions to protect the baby and ensure a safe x-ray test.

2. What happens if a woman finds out she's pregnant after she's had a test involving radiation?

If a woman finds out about her pregnancy after an imaging test, she must discuss the possible risks with her doctor. Generally, a one-time diagnostic x-ray is not harmful to the mother or the unborn child. Women who've had many consecutive x-rays involving large radiation doses should be more concerned about the consequences.

3. Can pregnant women pass through x-ray screening machines in airports?

Yes, they can. The x-ray screening machines used in airports to scan passengers and luggage emits a very low level of radiation. However, if you are still wary, you can opt-out of walking through a body scanner and ask for other screening options.

4. Can pregnant women work near x-rays?

We advise you to discuss your work plan with your employer as soon as you confirm your pregnancy. You can request protective equipment or take a temporary break from the job. If you want to continue working, you must talk to your doctor about the frequency and level of exposure to x-rays.

5. Is it okay to have dental x-rays during pregnancy?

It is advisable to postpone all dental procedures that require an x-ray until after pregnancy. However, if you need to take an x-ray due to unavoidable dental issues, your dentist will use an extra layer of protection on you to protect you from scattered radiation. Your dentist will provide you with an x-ray apron to minimise the exposure and protect your unborn baby.

Minimise Your Risks, Have A Safe Pregnancy

When it concerns pregnancy and imaging tests, there is one rule of thumb: Always inform your doctor about your pregnancy or take a test if you suspect you are pregnant. It is also a good idea to hold on to your previous x-ray records for your doctor's reference. Feel free to discuss the need for imaging tests when you are pregnant. Chalk out the reasons with your doctor and clarify all your doubts.

You can also reach out to our experts at Anderson Diagnostic Labs, Chennai, to know about your safety during imaging tests. We do all imaging tests under the strict supervision of expert technicians and doctors.

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