When Your Child Needs a CT Scan

A CT 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 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

Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Don't give your child anything to eat or drink 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. It's OK if your child has dental braces and fillings.

  • Follow all other instructions given by the healthcare provider. 

Let the technologist know 

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

  • Has allergies

  • Has any metal in their body

  • Has kidney problems

  • Takes any diabetes medicine

During the scan

A CT scan is performed by a radiology technologist. A radiologist is on call in case of problems. This is a healthcare provider 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 results and can even require a repeat scan. Your child may be restrained or given a sedative (medicine that makes your child relax or sleep). The sedative is taken by mouth or given through an IV line. A trained nurse often helps with this process. In rare cases, anesthesia (medicine 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.

  • Your child may hear whirring, buzzing, or clicking noises. The table 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.

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

After the scan

Here is what to expect 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.

  • 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 healthcare provider, 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

Risks and complications may include: 

  • Radiation exposure from X-rays. This exposure is felt to be low level and the scan is adjusted to use the lowest amount of X-ray radiation as possible.

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

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

  • Rarely, kidney injury from IV contrast dye, if given