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Radiation exposure from CT scans and the risk for cancer

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Dr. Kevin Campbell discusses radiation exposure from CT scans and the risk of cancer associated with the scans on WNCN Today.

A CT/CAT scan is an important imaging tool in medicine. It allows doctors to quickly and accurately diagnose certain issues, rule out more serious diseases and assess the success of therapies.

However, CT scans result in significant radiation exposure to the patient, and in some settings, these tests can be overused. Children are especially vulnerable to developing cancers related to radiation exposure. Over 4 million pediatric CT scans were performed last year in the U.S. alone.

A CT scan packs a wallop when it comes to radiation — as much as 500 times that of a conventional X-ray. Researchers found a population of 25,000 Japanese post-atomic-bomb survivors who were exposed to roughly the same amount of radiation as two CT scans.

The Food and Drug Administration has estimated that an adult's lifetime risk of developing radiation-induced cancer from a CT scan is roughly 1 in 2,000. The FDA says the risk for children is even greater.

According to a recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the projected lifetime attributable risks of solid cancer were higher for younger patients and girls than for older patients and boys. The risks were also higher for patients who underwent CT scans of the abdomen/pelvis or spine than for patients who underwent other types of CT scans, according to the results.

According to the study, estimates suggest that for girls, a radiation-induced solid cancer is projected to potentially result from every 300 to 390 abdomen/pelvis scans, 330 to 480 chest scans and 270 to 800 spine scans, depending on age. The potential risk of leukemia was highest from head scans for children younger than 5 years of age at a rate of 1.9 cases per 10,000 CT scans.

The JAMA study estimates that 4,870 future cancers could be caused by the 4 million pediatric CT scans performed each year.

Dr. Campbell says the most important thing patients can do when it comes to CT scans is to ask their doctor "why" they or their child needs one. Dr. Campbell says to ask what exactly the doctor is looking for and how exactly the results of the scan will change his or her management of the disease or injury.

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