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When Your Child Needs a Computed Tomography (CT) Scan

A CT (computed tomography) scan is an imaging test. It combines X-rays with computer technology. A CT scanner rotates X-ray beams through the body part being tested. A computer then uses the X-rays to create images. CT images are more detailed than a regular X-ray. A CT scan can be used for any part of the body, such as bones, muscles, fat, and organs. The scan may take only a few minutes. But the entire test lasts about 60 to 90 minutes.

Before the scan

  • Follow directions from your child's healthcare provider about eating or drinking. In most cases your child should not eat or drink anything for a few hours before the scan.

  • Remove any metal objects (such as glasses, belts, or clothing with zippers) from your child’s body. These things may interfere with X-rays and affect the results. It's ok if your child has dental braces and fillings.

  • Follow all other instructions from your child’s provider.


Let the provider know

For your child’s safety, let the healthcare provider know if your child:

  • Has allergies

  • Has kidney problems

  • Takes any diabetes medicine

  • Has metal implants

During the scan

A CT scan is performed by a radiology technologist. A radiologist is on call in case of problems. This is a doctor trained to use CT or other imaging techniques to test or treat patients.

Generally, a CT scan follows this process:

  • You can stay with your child in the testing room until the scanning begins.

  • Your child lies on a narrow table. The table slides into a doughnut-shaped hole that’s part of the CT scanner.

  • Your child needs to keep still during the scan. Movement affects the quality of the test results. If your child moves around, another scan may be needed.

  • Your child may be restrained. Medicine to make your child relax or sleep (a sedative) may be used. The sedative is taken by mouth or given through an intravenous (IV) line. A trained nurse often helps with this process.In rare cases, medicine that makes your child sleep (anesthesia) is also used. You’ll be told more about this if it is needed.

  • X-ray dye (contrast medium) may be used. This makes the X-ray images clearer. Your child will be given the dye by mouth, rectum, or IV. The dye may make your child feel warm. It may leave a strange taste in your child’s mouth. The effects will vary. It depends on what kind of dye is used and how it’s given.

  • The provider is nearby and views your child through a window.

  • During the test, your child may hear whirring, buzzing, or clicking noises. The table moves as images are taken.

  • If your child is awake, he or she can speak to and hear the provider through a speaker inside the scanner. Older children may be asked to hold their breath at certain points to improve image results.

  • You may be allowed in the room. But you'll need to wear a lead apron to prevent radiation exposure.

After the scan

  • If a sedative is given, your child may be taken to a recovery room. It may take 1 or 2 hours for the medicine to wear off.

  • In most cases your child can return to his or her normal routine and diet right away. Follow any instructions you are given.

  • If your child had X-ray dye, it should pass through his or her body in about 24 hours.

  • The CT images are reviewed by a radiologist. He or she may discuss early results with you. A report is sent to your child’s healthcare provider, who follows up with full results.

Helping your child prepare

You can help your child by preparing him or her in advance. How you do this depends on your child’s needs:

  • Explain the test to your child in brief and simple terms. Younger children have shorter attention spans, so do this shortly before the test. Older children can be given more time to understand the test in advance. 

  • Make sure your child understands which body part(s) will be involved in the test.

  • As best you can, describe how the test will feel. The CT scanner causes no pain. If your child needs to be sedated, an IV may be inserted into the arm. This may sting briefly. If awake, your child may become uncomfortable from lying still.

  • Allow your child to ask questions.

  • Use play when helpful. This can involve role-playing with a child’s favorite toy or object. It may help older children to see pictures of what happens during the test. 

 Possible risks and complications of CT

  • Radiation exposure from X-rays. This exposure is felt to be low level. CT scans use the lowest amount of X-ray radiation possible.

  • Reaction (such as headaches, shivering, and vomiting) to sedative or anesthesia

  • Allergic reaction (such as hives, itching, or wheezing) to X-ray dye

  • Kidney injury if IV X-ray dye is used. This is rare.

Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 12/8/2013
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