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What Is a CAT Scan? - Definition, Side Effects & Risks

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

This lesson is going to explain what a computerized axial tomography scan, or CAT scan, is and why it is done. We will also look at the side effects and risks that are associated with having a CAT scan.

CAT Scan

Patricia is in the hospital due to pain in her abdomen. It seems to have started all of a sudden and became so intense that she called for an ambulance. Dr. Scott has already done a preliminary physical exam of Patricia and has decided that she needs more of an internal view in order to diagnose what is going on in Patricia's stomach area. Luckily for Patricia, there are tools that allow Dr. Scott to see inside of her abdomen without having to cut her open.

Doctor Performing a CAT Scan on a Patient
Picture of patient getting a CAT scan

One way to get an internal image is to perform a CAT scan. No, this doesn't involve a cat doing an exam on Patricia. CAT scan is short for computerized axial tomography scan, which is a series of X-ray images taken at various angles that are organized by computer to give three-dimensional images as well as cross-sectional images. A contrast medium, such as dye, will be injected into one of Patricia's veins to help make the blood vessels and organs in her abdomen more visible. In effect, it is a way for Dr. Scott to look at Patricia's abdomen from different views and as individual slices.

This is one of Dr. Scott's go-to diagnostic tools whenever she needs to determine internal injuries or diseases. There are also times when she uses a CAT scan to help plan a surgery or other internal treatment for a patient. It is very helpful after a person has been in an accident or attacked since it lets the doctor see the state of the inside of the body. Dr. Scott has taken CAT scans over every part of the body from the head to the toes.

Side Effects and Risks

Patricia is now a little concerned. She wants to know the cause of her stomach pain, but isn't sure if the CAT scan is safe or not. After all, we all get a little concerned when we hear about anything that involves radiation. A CAT scan may not look the same as a basic X-ray machine, but it still makes use of radiation the same way. For that and other reasons, there are some possible side effects and risks associated with a CAT scan.

Exposure to radiation, especially higher amounts, increases the likelihood of cancer development. The amount used in a CAT scan is relatively low and doesn't present a very high risk. Patricia doesn't have to worry about developing cancer from having one CAT scan. She should be concerned if she has them frequently, however, since that would increase her risk of cancer development.

Dr. Scott will verify that Patricia isn't pregnant prior to giving her the scan. This is important because the amount of radiation is enough to possibly cause defects and harm to a developing fetus. Keep in mind that a fetus is really small, and its cells are dividing at a rather quick rate. The dose of radiation that the fetus would receive is higher than what the mother would receive, and dividing cells have more of a chance at producing a mutation than non-dividing cells.

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