A computerised tomography (CT) scan uses X-rays and a computer to create detailed images of the inside of the body. CT scans are sometimes referred to as CAT scans or computed tomography scans.
When CT scans are used
CT scans can produce detailed images of many structures inside the body, including the internal organs, blood vessels and bones.
They can be used to:
Preparing for a CT scan
Your appointment letter will mention anything you need to do to prepare for your scan including advice on whether to avoid eating anything for several hours before your appointment, to help ensure that clear images are taken.
You should contact the hospital if you have any allergies or kidney problems, or if you’re taking medication for diabetes because special arrangements may need to be made. You should also let the hospital know if you’re pregnant. CT scans aren’t usually recommended for pregnant women unless it’s an emergency, as there’s a small chance the X-rays could harm your baby.
Before having a CT scan
Before having the scan, you may be given a special dye called a contrast to help improve the quality of the images. This may be swallowed in the form of a drink, passed into your bottom (enema), or injected into a blood vessel.
Tell the radiographer if you feel anxious or claustrophobic about having the scan. They can give you advice to help you feel calm and can arrange for you to have a sedative (medication to help you relax) if necessary.
Before the scan starts, you may be asked to remove your clothing and put on a gown. You’ll also be asked to remove anything metal, such as jewellery, as metal interferes with the scanning equipment.
What happens during a CT scan
During the scan, you’ll usually lie on your back on a flat bed that passes into the CT scanner. The scanner consists of a ring that rotates around a small section of your body as you pass through it.
The radiographer will operate the scanner from the next room. While the scan is taking place, you’ll be able to hear and speak to them through an intercom.
While each scan is taken, you’ll need to lie very still and breathe normally. This ensures that the scan images aren’t blurred. You may be asked to breathe in, breathe out, or hold your breath at certain points. The scan will usually take around 10-20 minutes.
What happens afterwards
You shouldn’t experience any after effects from a CT scan and can usually go home soon afterwards. You can eat and drink, go to work and drive as normal.
Your scan results won’t usually be available immediately. A computer will need to process the information from your scan, which will then be analysed by a radiologist (a specialist in interpreting images of the body).
After analysing the images, the radiologist will write a report and send it to the doctor who referred you for the scan, so they can discuss the results with you. This normally takes a few days or weeks.
Are CT scans safe?
CT scans are quick, painless and generally safe. However, there’s a small risk you could have an allergic reaction to the contrast dye used and you will be exposed to X-ray radiation.
The amount of radiation you’re exposed to during a CT scan varies, depending on how much of your body is scanned. Generally, the amount of radiation you’re exposed to during each scan is the equivalent to between a few months and a few years of exposure to natural radiation from the environment.
It’s thought exposure to radiation during CT scans could slightly increase your chances of developing cancer many years later, although this risk is thought to be very small (less than 1 in 2,000).