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Radiation Exposure from X-rays in Children

What is radiation exposure from X-rays in children?

X-rays are a kind of imaging test. They give your healthcare provider information about structures inside the body. These tests expose children to low doses of radiation.

X-rays are forms of radiant energy. They are like light or radio waves. X-rays have more energy than rays of visible light or radio waves. They can penetrate your body. This lets the radiologist get X-ray pictures. You can then view these pictures on a photographic film or on a computer monitor.

You may be concerned about exposing your child to radiation. But radiation is around us all the time. Every day, we take in small amounts of radiation from the sun and other sources. People who live at high altitudes or who take many flights are around even more radiation exposure.

But radiation can damage living tissue and alter DNA. This is especially so in large doses. In very large doses, it can cause severe sickness and death. Medical tests use much, much smaller doses of radiation. They don’t cause such problems. These lower doses of radiation may not be completely risk free, though. The main concern is that radiation exposure may slightly raise your child’s risk of cancer later in life. Some of this radiation exposure might come from natural sources. But some of it can come from certain medical tests, like X-rays.

Certain kinds of X-ray imaging expose your child to more radiation than others. Continuous X-ray (fluoroscopy) may expose your child to more radiation than a single X-ray. A computed tomography (CT) scan is another type of imaging test that uses X-ray technology. A CT scan exposes your child to much more radiation than a single X-ray image (radiograph).

Why might a child need an X-ray?

Your child might need X-rays for a number of different health problems, from a broken bone to stomach pain. X-rays are particularly good at giving information about the hard tissues in the body, like bones. In some cases, X-rays can help with other medical procedures. They can guide the placement of a tube in the body, or give ongoing information about anatomy during surgery.

What are the symptoms of radiation exposure from X-rays in a child?

Radiation exposure from an X-ray itself will not cause any symptoms.

What are the risks to children of radiation exposure from X-rays?

Increased radiation exposure may raise your child’s risk for future cancer. Different types of X-ray tests use different amounts of radiation. For example, a standard X-ray of the chest provides about the same amount of radiation that you would normally get from background environmental radiation in 2 to 3 days. This is not very much radiation—less than you get on an airplane flight. This is why most healthcare providers don’t worry much about radiation exposure from a single X-ray.

In contrast, a standard chest CT might provide several hundred times that amount of radiation. This is roughly equal to the amount of radiation exposure you would normally get in a couple of years.

Not surprisingly, X-rays that cover more of the body expose your child to more radiation than X-rays over a smaller part of the body. Shielding can help lower radiation exposure. (This involves using a device, like a lead apron, to shield other parts of your child’s body from the X-ray.)

Each additional radiation exposure, depending on the type, strength, and other factors, adds to your child's total risk of developing cancer in the future. Overall, a child who has had dozens of CT scans is at a higher risk of problems from radiation than a child who has had only a few X-ray radiographs.

As scary as the risks of radiation exposure may sound, it is important to consider the benefits of X-rays and other tests that may expose your child to radiation. Your child’s healthcare provider will consider how important the testing is to try to prevent unneeded tests.

How is radiation exposure from X-rays measured in a child?

Each X-ray, fluoroscopy, or CT scan provides a certain amount of radiation exposure. If you know the tests your child has had, you can get an estimate of the amount of radiation exposure your child has had from X-rays and other testing. But it's important to understand that small amounts of radiation over a long time are much safer than a single large exposure.

How is radiation exposure from X-rays treated in a child?

Once the radiation exposure has happened, there is no way to treat it. You can only work toward reducing the amount of radiation your child gets.

Of course, if your child gets cancer later in life (possibly partly due to radiation exposure), this would need its own treatment.

What are possible complications of radiation exposure from X-rays in a child?

The main risk of radiation exposure is developing cancer later in life. Researchers still aren’t quite sure how much radiation exposure raises your child’s future risk of cancer. For most children, radiation exposure to X-rays probably only raises their risk of cancer a very small amount, if at all.

The chance of getting cancer increases with the amount of radiation exposure. A child who has had a few X-rays may not have any higher risk. A child who has had many CT scans is at greater risk of future cancer. But this may still be a relatively small increase in risk. Keep in mind that people get cancer for many reasons. Your child might get cancer later in life even if they haven't had any radiation exposure from X-rays.

Theoretically, radiation exposure from X-rays might damage reproductive cells. This could cause a mutation that future generations may inherit. These risks are probably very, very small.

People exposed to large amounts of radiation all at once may get very sick and even die. This might happen during a nuclear accident or bomb. Radiation levels from medical tests (including X-rays) are much, much lower than this. They don’t cause such effects.

What can I do to prevent radiation exposure from X-rays in my child?

Sometimes, X-rays are needed and of clear health benefit. In these cases, the risks of not having an X-ray are greater than any small risks of the X-ray itself. Still, it makes sense to reduce the amount of radiation your child gets. To do this:

  • Talk with your healthcare provider if you are worried that your child is receiving too many X-ray tests.

  • Only allow X-rays, fluoroscopy, or CT scans when there is a clear health benefit to your child.

  • Use the lowest amount of radiation possible (based on your child’s size) to get the needed images.

  • Only X-ray the area needed.

  • Use shielding when possible (especially for very sensitive areas, such as the thyroid gland and genitals).

  • Do not repeat scans unless needed.

Don’t be afraid to work with your healthcare provider to meet these goals. Your radiologist should have good training in these areas as well.

How can I manage radiation exposure from X-rays in my child?

It is important to consider the risks and benefits of any testing that may expose your child to radiation to help prevent unneeded exposure.

Don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare provider if another test, which uses less radiation, could provide the same information. Ultrasound, for example, does not use any radiation, and a low-dose CT provides less radiation than a standard CT.

Remember that there are many times when the very small risks from X-ray imaging are well worth it.

Key points about radiation exposure from X-rays in children

X-rays are a form of radiant energy. Simple X-ray radiographs, fluoroscopy, and CT scans are tests that use radiant energy. This radiation exposure may pose some risks, so your child should only have these tests when they are needed.

  • Radiation exposure from X-rays may slightly raise the risk of later cancer, especially in children who have had many tests with high radiation exposure.

  • Radiation exposure from X-rays does not pose any short-term problems. Long-term problems are very small.

  • Simple X-ray radiographs give very little radiation exposure. So they have very little, if any, risk.

  • CT scans provide much more radiation exposure and may pose more risk.

  • Risks from radiation exposure from X-rays can add up over time. But this still only increases the overall risk of cancer to your child slightly.

  • Work with your healthcare provider to reduce your child’s X-ray exposure. Remember that these tests are sometimes very beneficial.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions, especially after office hours or on weekends and holidays.

Online Medical Reviewer: Mahammad Juber MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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