What are the Side Effects of a CT Scan?

Whether used as a diagnostic tool or for treatment of existing conditions, your doctor may request a CT (computed tomography) scan for you to find out life-saving information and improve your health. If you are planning to have a CT scan, you should be aware of these potential side effects. 

What is a CT Scan? 

A CT scan is a type of x-ray test that provides cross-sectional images of the body. While a traditional x-ray test shows images that appear to look through the body, a CT scan uses computer-processed x-ray measurements taken from multiple angles to show slices of the body. This allows doctors to have a more open, detailed view of the inside of the body so they can see things that aren’t visible in an x-ray. CT scans can be done in hospitals, clinics, and mobile CT scanners.

What is a CT Scan Used For? 

If you have abnormalities show up on an x-ray, your doctor may request a CT scan to get a more detailed view. Doctors use CT scans of the head or brain to look for signs of a stroke, bleeding, or abnormalities with the blood vessels. They can also be used to examine enlarged lymph nodes or masses, find the cause of undiagnosed pain, locate blood clots or excessive fluid, and detect problems with the bones or spine. 

Common Side Effects 

  • Radiation Exposure

Having a CT scan will expose you to radiation, which may cause damage to cells. Over time, this cell damage may lead to cancer. The radiation levels in CT scans are low enough to be considered safe, but they should only be done when medically necessary.

  • Reactions to Contrast Agents 

Most potential side effects are due to reactions to contrast agents used during the procedure.

  • Allergic Reactions 

Contrast, which is also referred to as dye, is used to highlight abnormalities and make the blood vessels, organs, and soft tissue visible. Some people may have serious allergic reactions to the contrast, and the risk of fatality is about one in 100,000 people. If you are allergic to any other medications, seafood, or iodine, or if you have asthma, emphysema, or heart disease, you may be at an increased risk of reactions.

  • Kidney Complications 

Contrast is given through injection, orally, or through an enema, depending on what part of the body is being scanned. Intravenous contrast may cause kidney damage, especially if you already have kidney disease, so it’s important to flush your system out by drinking plenty of fluids.

  • Barium Contrast 

Barium contrast is taken orally or rectally and is used for scans of the gastrointestinal tract. Possible side effects may include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramping, or constipation.

  • Iodine Contrast 

Iodine contrast is given intravenously and is used to see internal organs, veins, arteries, muscles, the brain, and breasts. Possible side effects of iodine contrast may include itching, rash, hives, or headache. 

Most of these side effects are minor, but it’s important to pay attention to your body so you will notice anything unusual. Call your doctor right away if you experience rapid heart rate, trouble breathing, or swelling of your throat or other parts of the body.

Scott Ronk


About the Author: Scott Ronk has been working in the radiology field for over 30 years. He finds the biological phenomenons found in humankind fascinating and appreciates the incredible use that diagnostic imagery has to save lives. Other than acting as the President for Catalina Imaging, Scott enjoys spreading the word on new insights and breakthroughs in the radiology field, specifically the impact that mobile imaging has for patient care.


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