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When Your Child Needs a Computed Tomography (CT) Scan

Computed tomography (CT) is a test that combines x-rays with computer processing technology. A CT scanner rotates x-ray beams through the body part being tested. A computer then uses the x-rays to create images. The results may show problems with soft tissue (such as muscles), organs (such as lungs), or bones. The scan may take only a few minutes. But the entire test lasts about 60–90 minutes.

Before the Scan

  • Don’t give your child anything to eat or drink 4–6 hours before the scan. In some cases, you may be told that your child doesn’t need to fast.

  • 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. Dental braces and fillings aren’t a problem.

  • Follow all other instructions given by the doctor.

Let the Technologist Know

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

  • Has allergies.

  • Has kidney problems.

  • Takes any diabetes medication.

  • Has metal implants.

Boy lying on back on scanner table. Healthcare provider is preparing to move table into circular opening of CT scanner.
Your child lies still on a table that slides into a doughnut-shaped hole that is part of the CT scanner.

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.

  • 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 results and can even require a repeat scan. Your child may be restrained or given a sedative (medication that makes your child relax or sleep). The sedative is taken by mouth or given through an intravenous (IV) line. A trained nurse often helps with this process. In rare cases, anesthesia (medication that makes your child sleep) is also used. You’ll be told more about this if needed.

  • Contrast material, a special dye, may be used to improve image results. Your child is given contrast material by mouth, rectum, or IV. The contrast material may make your child feel warm or leave a strange taste in your child’s mouth. The effects vary depending on what kind of contrast material is used and how it’s given.

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

  • The CT scanner can be noisy. The table tilts and moves as images are taken.

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

After the Scan

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

  • Unless told not to, your child can return to his or her normal routine and diet right away.

  • Any contrast material your child is given should pass through the body in about 24 hours.

  • The CT images are reviewed by a radiologist, who may discuss early results with you. A report is sent to your child’s doctor, who follows up with complete 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

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

  • Allergic reaction (such as hives, itching, or wheezing) to contrast material

Online Medical Reviewer: Desser, Terry, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Williams, Scott Thomas, MD
Last Review Date: 10/26/2011
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.