CT scans for children linked to increased cancer risk
June 6th, 2012
06:30 PM ET

CT scans for children linked to increased cancer risk

CT scans expose children to radiation that could give them cancer, according to a  review of children’s imaging data published Wednesday in the British medical journal Lancet.

The researchers estimate that for every 10,000 computed tomography scans performed on children aged 10 or younger, one additional child will get a brain tumor and another additional child will get leukemia within a decade of the first scan. These cancers wouldn’t otherwise be expected, even if none of the imaging was done.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute and Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University in England say their investigation is the first direct evidence of such a link.  They reviewed 175,000 cases.

Multiple CT scans increase a child’s risk. The researchers found radiation exposure from two to three scans can triple the risk of brain cancer and five to ten scans can triple the risk of leukemia.

Radiation experts say the increased cancer risk of the CT scans should not dissuade parents from getting the scans for their children when medically necessary. The tests often produce life-saving images of head injuries, complicated pneumonia and chest infections.

“If an imaging scan is warranted, the immediate benefits outweigh what is still a very small long-term risk,” said Dr. Marta Schulman, a pediatric radiologist and chair of the American College of Radiology’s Pediatric Imaging Commission, in a statement to CNN. “Parents should certainly discuss risk with their provider, but not refuse care that may save and extend their child’s life.”

A study last year found 1.65 million children got a CT scan during their visits to emergency rooms in 2008, a fivefold increase in 14 years.

Before you agree to a CT scan for your child, here’s some advice from the study’s authors and pediatricians at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital:

  •  Ask for the lowest dose of radiation possible
  •  Avoid multiple scans
  •  Ask for an ultrasound or MRI instead, which have no radiation at all

The Alliance for Radiation Safety in Pediatric Imaging also has information on how you can decide on scans for your children.

soundoff (189 Responses)
  1. Brian

    " Docs do not make money by ordering CT scans (radiologists and the owners of the scans, perhaps).".............

    The Wall Street Journal has reported that hospitals use CT's and MRI's as a "cash cow." You can be sure some of this money finds its way to the doctors. And yes, this country is over-lawyered which contributes to our "health care mess."

    June 7, 2012 at 14:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Zeke2112

      Well, I CAN'T be sure without some evidence. Do you have any that isn't solely in your head?

      June 7, 2012 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
    • Zach

      The only doctors who profit from imaging studies are radiologists, and those who may be invested in the imaging hardware (CT scanners, MRI machines, etc) used to perform the studies. The ordering physician, though, gets nothing.

      June 7, 2012 at 15:22 | Report abuse |
    • MarkGlicker

      Brian sounds like a smart man.

      June 7, 2012 at 19:08 | Report abuse |
    • honestdoc

      stop bashing radiologist. They do NOT make money from patients in that way. I am a radiologist and like most I get paid a salary and it doesn't fluctuate by the number of scans patients get. Your scan needs to be read by a competent radiologist and that is why we go to school for more than a decade to be prepared. when we are out of school we owe on average 300k. given the fact that we are slave labor for more than a decade I think we deserve what we take home given our sacrifices.

      June 7, 2012 at 20:44 | Report abuse |
    • honestdoc

      stop bashing radiologist. They do NOT make money from patients in that way. I am a radiologist and like most I get paid a salary and it doesn't fluctuate by the number of scans patients get. Your scan needs to be read by a competent radiologist and that is why we go to school for more than a decade to be prepared (thats not counting 4 years of college,,,yea!). when we are out of school we owe on average 300k. given the fact that we are slave labor for more than a decade I think we deserve what we take home given our sacrifices.

      June 7, 2012 at 20:45 | Report abuse |
  2. cleat

    notice how they are saying "we dont need" these tests anymore? less CT scans, less mamagrophy, less colon scan, les etc. etc...
    welcome to obamacare--keep costs down–even at the cost of health

    June 7, 2012 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply

      Go ahead.... I hope every republican gets as many CT scans as possible.

      Hopefully, it will sterilize all your male sperm, letting the rest of us normal people propagate into the utopian future we were promised.

      But in all seriouslness, are you telling me the healthcare industry didn't deny diagnostic tests before "obamacare." Stop being a right wing marketing mule.

      June 7, 2012 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
    • Rombolio

      Wow, relating a discussion on radiation exposure to Obama, kind of stretching that connection aren't ya? The fact of the matter is, we do need to keep costs down in healthcare, we pay more than almost anyone else in the world, yet we're not near the leaderboards for health. Extraneous tests cost everyone, the patient in the form of unnecessary exposure, the hospital in the wasted time/money in performing the test (we don't like negative results anymore than patients do), the insurance company in paying for the test and you and I who pay for Medicare/Medicaid out of our paychecks. Notice the trend in the exams you listed? No? Well, I'll tell you, they all have to do with ionizing radiation. But go ahead, grab your soap box and spout off about politics some more.

      June 7, 2012 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      "Radiation experts say the increased cancer risk of the CT scans should not dissuade parents from getting the scans for their children when medically necessary."

      What article are you reading?

      June 7, 2012 at 15:07 | Report abuse |
    • Rombolio

      I apologize ahead of time if my comment to cleat shows up x3, my browser is acting goofy.

      June 7, 2012 at 15:15 | Report abuse |
    • revolting peasant

      obama care has not started yet, so how do you blame it?

      June 7, 2012 at 21:54 | Report abuse |
  3. wassup

    Quick...let's get a lawyer and get rich somehow! LOL

    June 7, 2012 at 15:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Hunter

    This has NOTHING to do with Obamacare, cleat. If anything, it has to do with our current healthcare system of the insurance companies dictating everything (death panels)!

    June 7, 2012 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. wrm

    "The researchers estimate that for every 10,000 computed tomography scans performed on children aged 10 or younger, one additional child will get a brain tumor and another additional child will get leukemia within a decade of the first scan."

    If you're going to play public service announcer please make complete statements. This tells me nothing.

    June 7, 2012 at 15:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rombolio

      Sure it does, it says the scans only increased the occurence of the tumor and leukemia by 0.01%.

      June 7, 2012 at 15:14 | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      While it's not entirely clear, the article doesn't appear to say that the CT increased the occurence of brain tumors and leukemia by .01% (for each disease). Rather, it says that the rate at which one CT scan cause each disease is .01% You'd have to know the base rates (without exposure to CT) that the diseases occur in order determine how much the occurence increases. For example, if the base rate of each of the diseases were 1 in 10,000, then the article would seem to be saying that CTs double the risk (albeit a very small risk). If 10 in 10,000 children are expected to get one of the diseases, then CTs increase the risk by 10%.

      June 7, 2012 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
    • dexmp

      What?! You just quoted a complete statement! Its not an incomplete statement just because you can't understand it... wow, the intelligence of people today

      June 7, 2012 at 16:50 | Report abuse |
    • Padraig

      I'm pretty sure that the base rates for children to get a brain tumour before they're 20 is like 1 in 100,000 to 1 in 1,000,000. It's something that practically never happens. So a single CT scan would make the risk 10 times greater or 100 times greater. In fact brain tumours are so rare at that age that the 1 in 100,000 were probably mainly induced by CT scans, other radiation exposure or some accidental/freakish exposure to highly toxic chemicals and the like.

      June 1, 2014 at 13:53 | Report abuse |
  6. Tanya

    I worked in the ER for thirty years. When a child gets a boo boo, don't run to the ER. Kids fall, get cuts and bruises and the parents out of guilt run to the ER and insist on a lot of procedures that are not necessary. Severe bleeding, high fever and things of this nature do warrant a trip to the hospital, but six out of ten do not. CT is a wonderful medical device when necessary, but not because Mommy and Daddy want it done.

    June 7, 2012 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brian


      June 7, 2012 at 15:46 | Report abuse |
    • Beth

      We took out 10 month old to the ER when he fell and hit his head. He became very lethargic and irritable. Once he woke up from his nap he began vomiting. I have never been so scared in my life. We took him to the ER, they performed a CT and gave him a clean bill of health. I knew that there were risks, but all signs pointed to something serious. I know that 0.01% is a small increase, but this is not what I wanted to hear....

      June 7, 2012 at 17:03 | Report abuse |
    • dexmp

      Beth: A good hit to the head, with vomitting and mood changes can be a sign of severe head trauma for anyone of any age. I am an informed patient (trained medical physicist), and I recently hit my head on concrete and opted for the CT. Head trauma risks with those symptoms far outway the risk of a CT. One option is to ask the hospital to use a child setting on the CT if possible, sometimes the techs forget to use it.

      June 7, 2012 at 17:16 | Report abuse |
  7. Supra

    I thought CT Scans were always a risk vs benefit thing, in that the chance of harm or injury from not getting a scan outweighed the risk of increased cancer risk.

    June 7, 2012 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dexmp

      Its supposed to be... but for the doctors the risk vs benefit becomes "chances of getting sued if I miss something by not doing a CT" – 0.00001% vs "chances of a cancer coming up 10 years later being linked to this CT and I get sued" 0%

      June 7, 2012 at 16:52 | Report abuse |
  8. jeny

    We took our 5 year old son to the ER (not a pediatric ER) when he woke at 2am screaming with severe stomach pains . The ER wanted to rule out appendicitis and said he had to have a CT. I begged for an ultrasound, but was told by the doctor (and nurses) that ultrasounds don't give them the image they need for diagnosis due to it being soft tissue. I agreed and was with him during the scan. That was last year, and for every day since, I have thought about the radiation he received. It would seem from what I've read in other articles about this study, that a CT isn't necessary for ruling out appendicitis – rather, an ultrasound would have been appropriate. I think about this every day and wish I had made a different decision that night. I feel as if the hospital did not give me honest information about the risks and alternative tests. This makes me sick.....

    June 7, 2012 at 16:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sue

      I am an ultrasound tech, ultrasound is NOT a good test for appendicitis.

      June 7, 2012 at 16:42 | Report abuse |
    • dexmp

      I agree with Sue, ultrasounds are not nearly as good for appendicitis. However, you did the right thing... you questioned the doctors to see if there was a non-ionizing radiation test (ultrasound, MRI, etc.); and then went ahead when the doctors gave a clear reason for the scan. You would feel much worse if appendicitis was missed and later burst, then the small risk caused by that 1 scan

      June 7, 2012 at 17:01 | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      I am a radiologist. Ultrasound should ALWAYS be the first imaging test for appendicitis in children. It does not always provide the answer, and a CT may still be needed, but in many cases it can accurately diagnose appendicitis and preclude a CT scan.

      June 7, 2012 at 17:28 | Report abuse |
    • Greta

      Jeny, dont beat yourself up. Not every er has the ability to reliably do us for appendicitis, although one might think they should. A ct in some cases might be the better first choice.

      Jeff, I agree with you. Might not always be a high probability scan in every child, but i agree it is worth trying in just about every case . The outliers often get a phone call from the ER to brainstorm the best approach.

      To Sue, it is an acquired skill and it does take practice. Your radiologists should teach you if your er routinely orders these. That having been said, I can't always find the darn when i scan things myself.

      Sometimes it takes a CT or MR. And then in patients without a lot of abdominal fat...its better if the patient takes oral contrast for the CT and now you're there for 4 hours. If you need the question answered, you want a reliable answer.

      June 7, 2012 at 18:09 | Report abuse |
    • Jeny

      Greta – It was with contrast. He had to drink something prior. No appendicitis and a clean bill of health with bloodwork fine. Esp. since it wasn't a pediatric ER, I worry every day about the radiation he was exposed to....I still wish they just would have done an ultrasound and waited. He had no fever either....

      June 7, 2012 at 18:17 | Report abuse |
    • Doctor Al

      As long as you do not get repeated CT scans, your radiation exposure is still low. The people who have problems because of CT are prescription drug abusers who go to ERs complaining of abdominal pain regularly to get a fix thereby getting many CTs each year. Your son will be fine!!!

      June 8, 2012 at 23:07 | Report abuse |
  9. Rachel Davis

    On May 14, 2012 (less than a month ago) ago my 2 1/2 year old son fell off the bed and hit his head. When he started showing some signs of a concussion, I took him into the ER. The ER doctor explained that a CT scan would let us know if there was anything problematic going on, but that his vital signs had stabilized and that there was the risk of the CT to consider as well. My husband and I went back and forth about whether to get the CT scan, and finally decided to err on the safe side, and just get one done. The scan revealed a 3.5 cm brain tumor that we could not have known existed. He's scheduled for tumor removal next week. And even now he has zero symptoms of the tumor. I cannot say how deeply thankful I am for scans like the CT, and for the medical professionals who decided to err on the conservative side with their recommendations.

    June 7, 2012 at 17:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Burbank

    And the doctors wonder why I refuse to get mammograms!

    June 7, 2012 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Karen

      No NO NOOO!!!! As a medical physics researcher... the standards set for mammograms check ups have been studied and reviewed and studies. Yes, you will have an increased minimum risk of getting breast cancer with mammograms...but that risk is less than the chance that you already have it and could catch it in time to get treatment!!

      This is why I hate these stories in the media... it is good for doctors and medical researchers to know the risks... but people are so scared of radiation that they think its risks are always greater than other risks out there!

      June 7, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse |
    • Greta

      Get your mammogram. Women face on averaqge a 1 in 8-9 lifetime risk of breast cancer. That's really simple math. The test isn't perfect, particularly if you have extremely dense breast tissue, but caught early, breast cancer generally has much better outcomes.

      Personally, I get my mammograms regularly and I would much rather get a diagnosis of DCIS (typically the earliest form) than invasive ductal cancer (what DCIS is generally believed to progress into if left alone).

      I have teenage kids and am a single mom. This one's a no brainer, at least for me. Talk to your doctor. If your doc won't take the time to talk to you, find a new one.

      June 9, 2012 at 09:27 | Report abuse |
  11. Shangey G.

    Most Doctors write up a requisition form for an unnecessary test, scan or xray to simple satisfy their curiosity, or to simply rule out things. Many so-called "non-invasive" tests, like x-rays, are not completely inert.

    Many doctors are lazy and it's all too easy for them to request a patient go through these potentially harmful tests. After all, they're not the one's getting doused in radiation.

    June 7, 2012 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      I don't know if I call it laziness or that they are so scared that they will be sued if they miss something because they choose not to do a CT.

      June 7, 2012 at 19:45 | Report abuse |
  12. Debbie

    Are MRIs a safer alternative to necessary CTs?

    June 7, 2012 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      MRI use strong magnetic fields, not ioninzing radiation like CT's and are therefore believed to have no or very minimal biological impact. However, MRI can not always be used to diagnose the same things CT's can. Additionally, they take much longer, so in the case of trauma; may not be able to be used. However, it never hurts to ask a doctor, "Could a MRI work for this too?" In the past before all these studies were coming out (not sure if this is true anymore), some doctors would choose to prescribe a CT over a MRI since MRI are much more expensive (both to the patient and hospital). I recently needed both, and with my insurance, a CT is $50 but a MRI is 10% (which ended up being like 225 last time).

      June 7, 2012 at 19:39 | Report abuse |
  13. MaryR

    Greta is right on. Her 'book' is worth reading. The reporters article by CNN is not helpful.

    June 8, 2012 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. sick n tired

    'Radiation experts say the increased cancer risk of the CT scans should not dissuade parents from getting the scans for their children when medically necessary. The tests often produce life-saving images of head injuries, complicated pneumonia and chest infections.'

    I've had several CT scans over my life time and none of them, absolutely NONE of them helped the 'Dr's' 'diagnose' anything. An outright waste of money and apparently a serious health risk too. But don't worry, the 'experts' say it's fine to blast people with high levels of radiation. Our health care system becomes more of a bad joke every day.

    June 8, 2012 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. NJ

    How about if we apply a bit of common sense. Physicians and patients (and the patient's power of attorney) should consider whether or not they are going to treat whatever abnormality is found on the imaging study. Requesting a mammogram on an elderly patient with dementia, who is contracted, and confined to a wheelchair is unacceptable – and can be considered abuse (battery) to patients who are not competent and/or combative. Also, ordering a sinus CT scans on pediatric patients should be the absolute last resort, but appears to be the first choice for a child with allergies – all that radiation to the corneas (and the possibly the pituitary) is unnecessary, and under the age of 5, the patient rarely is able to hold still for the scan.

    June 8, 2012 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. kevinimills

    Reblogged this on kimmblog and commented:

    June 8, 2012 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Peterbishop

    Too many X-rays are given to patients and one of the reasons is that we don't have complete medical histories that we can give to our health care providers. A patient can get a bunch of x-rays for a back problem and then go the dentist and get some more.

    June 10, 2012 at 09:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. NBMom

    This is one of the many reasons childhood cancer survivors such as my daughter have an increased risk of secondary cancers later in life...between all of the chemo, CT scans, bone scans, MIBG and PET scans that she had done over her first 4 years of life, she probably glowed in the dark...she has been in remission for 11 years as of today (she will be 12 soon), and I don't regret a single scan...the fact that she is still with us and is good health considering her ordeal outweighs the risk of 'possible' problems later.

    June 21, 2012 at 05:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. kristen

    i have to get my first catscan Wednesday December 5 on my brain and im am very scared the might find somthing horrible!!

    November 30, 2012 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Bea Carstensen

    Appendicitis is a condition characterized by inflammation of the appendix. It is classified as a medical emergency and many cases require removal of the inflamed appendix, either by laparotomy or laparoscopy. Untreated, mortality is high, mainly because of the risk of rupture leading to infection and inflammation of the intestinal lining (peritoneum) and eventual sepsis, clinically known as peritonitis which can lead to circulatory shock."`^

    Very latest blog post provided by our new blog

    June 7, 2013 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Partha Mukherjee

    My Son was 3yrs 6mounth old,when child specialist recommended a city scan,for nerve problem,pls suggest what can i do?

    January 29, 2015 at 23:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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