Imaging and Medical Radiation Safety

Imaging and medical radiation have come a long way in helping to diagnose, treat, and monitor health conditions. However, these tests can be a little scary if you have never had one before. If your doctor orders a test for you, it’s okay to ask questions. Make sure you understand the details, including the benefits and risks. These may vary for children and adults. You also should know how to get the tests safely and what the results will mean.

Path to safety

Imaging tests are procedures that produce images in various ways. They allow doctors to see inside your body.

Two common imaging tests that do not use radiation are:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): produces images using radio waves and a magnetic field.
  • Ultrasound: produces images using sound waves.

There are several types of imaging tests that use radiation to produce images. These include:

  • X-ray
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • mammogram
  • positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • bone scan.

In general, imaging tests are safe and the benefits outweigh the risks. Tests that involve ionizing radiation have a risk of exposure. However, the amount of exposure is low, depending on the body part. The risk increases with:

  • The length of exposure.
  • Repeated testing and exposure.
  • The age of the patient. Kids and teens are more sensitive to radiation.

Radiation also can be used as a form of treatment for certain types of cancer. In this case, the level of exposure often is greater, longer, and more frequent than in a radiation test.

Things to consider

Before a doctor performs imaging or radiation, they will consider your state of health. It is helpful to have a medical imaging record card. You can use it to record and keep track of all tests and/or treatment. This way your doctor knows what you have received and when. It helps cut down on duplicate testing. Next, the doctor will explain the procedure and weigh the benefits and risks. As the patient, you do have the right to decline the test or treatment.

Women who are pregnant should talk to their doctor prior to getting radiation. There should be no risk of harming the baby unless the radiation is aimed at the mother’s stomach.

Some imaging tests use contrast materials, or agents. These help improve the pictures by showing details that are not easily seen without contrast. The most common agents include iodine or barium-sulfate. Be sure to ask your doctor if they will use a contrast agent. Tell them if you are allergic to either substance.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How much radiation exposure is safe at once and in my lifetime?
  • Is imaging and radiation safe if I am pregnant?
  • How will you use the test results to diagnose or treat my condition?
  • Do the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risks?
  • Is there an alternative test I can get that doesn’t involve radiation?


RadiologyInfo, Patient Safety

RadiologyInfo, Contrast Materials

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Medical X-ray Imaging