CT Abdominal Scans in Children

(Pediatric Computed Tomography of the Abdomen)  

Procedure overview

A CT abdominal scan is a type of medical exam that uses X-ray equipment and a computer to make many cross-sectional images of the abdomen. These images can be studied on a computer, printed, or put on a CD.

Illustration of child having a CT Scan

A CT scan of the abdomen is an important test to diagnose abdominal problems in newborns, infants, and children. It’s called a noninvasive medical test because it doesn’t involve an incision or procedure that goes inside your child's body.

Reasons for the procedure

An abdominal CT scan allows doctors to get a better picture of what is going on inside the abdomen than a plain X-ray. Your child may need an abdominal CT scan to:

  • Find the cause of abdominal pain

  • Help diagnose an infection in the abdomen

  • Help diagnose digestive problems

  • Help diagnose urinary problems

  • Evaluate abdominal injuries

  • Diagnose or plan treatment for cancer

Some childhood diseases that an abdominal CT scan can help diagnose include appendicitis, inflammatory bowel disease, abdominal tumors, and birth defects. Important organs that can be evaluated include the stomach, liver, kidney, and spleen. Your child's doctor may have other reasons for ordering this test.

Risks of the procedure

There is always a slight risk of developing cancer from repeated exposure to radiation, but the benefits of getting an accurate diagnosis usually outweigh the risks. The amount of radiation used during an abdominal CT scan is considered minimal, meaning the risk for radiation exposure is low. No radiation remains in your child's body after a CT scan.

Other risks include:

  • Allergic reactions. Children who are allergic to the special type of dye that is sometimes used during an abdominal CT scan, called contrast material, may have an allergic reaction. These reactions are more common in children who are allergic to iodine or shellfish. These types of reactions are rare and are usually not serious.

  • Reaction to sedation or anesthesia. Some younger children who are unable to hold still during CT scan may require a brief period of anesthesia or sedation. If your child needs to be asleep or sedated during the procedure, your doctor will discuss these risks with you.

Children are more sensitive to radiation than adults. For this reason, CT scans should only be done if the information is critically important for making a diagnosis. Another type of scan, such as MRI or ultrasound, may sometimes be used in place of a CT scan and has less risk for radiation exposure. You should discuss these options with your child's doctor.

There may be other risks, depending on your child’s specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your child’s doctor before the procedure.

Before the procedure

Tell your child’s doctor about any medications your child takes at home, including herbal supplements and over-the-counter medications. Also go over any medical conditions your child may have, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, thyroid, kidney disease, and any recent illness. Some medications may need to be altered or discontinued before a procedure. 

Discuss any allergies your child has, especially any history of reactions to the special dyes used during X-rays and any allergy to iodine or seafood. These allergies will help your doctor decide if contrast material should be used during the exam.

The following preparations for the procedure will usually be discussed with you:

  • Your child may need to stop eating and drinking several hours before the exam. Children who are having general anesthesia usually must stop all food and drink eight hours in advance.

  • Leave all metal objects, such as jewelry and hair barrettes, at home since metal can affect CT imaging.

  • Dress your child in comfortable clothes on the day of the exam.

During the procedure

Your child may have a CT scan at a hospital or an outpatient facility.

The CT scanner is a large machine with a tunnel that an examination table passes through. Here is what usually happens during the test:

  • Your child will be positioned on the exam table.

  • If your child is having anesthesia or sedation, an IV line will be placed in your child's hand or arm.

  • If contrast material is given through an IV, your child may feel a warm sensation when it is injected and may have a metallic taste for a short time. Contrast material may be given as a drink, possibly mixed with juice or soda to mask the taste.

  • The scan itself is painless and lasts between 5 and 20 seconds. Your child may hear clicking, whirring, and buzzing sounds as the scanner rotates around the exam table.

  • Your child may be asked to hold his or her breath during the scan if possible.

  • After the scan, your child will probably need to wait while the images are checked to make sure they are acceptable.

You may be able to stay in the room with your child during the test. If you stay, you will need to wear a lead apron. Although there is little radiation exposure outside the CT scan tunnel, if you are or could be pregnant, ask your doctor if another family member should stay with your child instead of you.

After the procedure

Most often, your child will be able to get back to his or her usual schedule right away. If your child had sedation or anesthesia, he or she may be observed for a while in a recovery area. In this case or if your child was given contrast material, you may be given some instructions for care at home, depending on your child's particular situation.