Pregnant women can normally avoid harmful radiation. Yet you may wonder what the risks of radiation from X-rays and ultrasounds are. Here we explain all.
Two types of radiation are used during diagnostic procedures: ionising and non-ionising. Normal medical imaging procedures like X-rays or CT scans use ionising radiation (Health Protection Agency 2009). The low doses of ionising radiation normally used in diagnostic procedures have not been associated with miscarriage; although doses higher than normal within two weeks of conception could potentially present a risk (American College of Radiology, 2008; Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons, 2011).
"Make sure you tell doctors or dentists that you're pregnant so they don't give you an X-ray unless urgently needed."
Ionising radiation from medical imaging procedures can slightly increase your risk of cancer and the risk of childhood cancer when the baby is born (Public Health England, 2014). This usually means that doctors and dentists won’t give you an X-ray until you’ve given birth unless there is an urgent medical reason to do so (Health Protection Agency, 2009).
Weighing up the risks
If you need tests, medical professionals will weigh up the risks to you and your baby and make a decision. If they do go ahead, they will use the lowest dose of radiation possible and shield you as much as they can (Health Protection Agency, 2009). Make sure you tell medical staff that you are pregnant before you have an X-ray.
To put radiation risk into context, it is important to remember that we all are exposed to naturally occurring background radiation from the earth (Public Health England, 2014).
Ultrasound scans and MRI scans use non-ionising radiation and pose minimal risk when you’re pregnant (RCOG, 2015). So there’s no need to panic when you go for your 12-week scan. You should still avoid having any unnecessary scans when you’re pregnant (RCOG, 2015).
Radiation and X-rays if you don’t know whether you’re pregnant
If you even think you could be pregnant, let medical professionals know before being exposed to any radiation.
Radiation and cancer treatment
If you were getting radiation treatment for cancer before you realised you were pregnant, ask your oncologist about radiation exposure to the baby.
Radiation and the work place
If you work in a place where you’re exposed to radiation, like a nuclear power plant, speak to your employer as soon as you know you’re pregnant. You can talk to your employer about ways of minimising your exposure. Contact the Health and Safety Executive for more information.
This page was last reviewed in June 2018
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American College of Radiology. (2008) ACR Practice guideline for imaging pregnant or potentially pregant adolescents and women with ionizing radiation. Available from: https://www.acr.org/-/media/ACR/Files/Practice-Parameters/pregnant-pts.pdf [Accessed 22nd March 2018].
Health Protection Agency, Royal College of Radiologists and College Radiographers. (2009) Protection of pregnant patients during diagnostic medical exposures to ionising radiation. Available from: https://www.rcr.ac.uk/publication/protection-pregnant-patients-during-diagnostic-medical-exposures-ionising-radiation [Accessed 22nd March 2018].
NHS Choices. (2010) Warning over ‘souvenir’ baby scans. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/warning-over-souvenir-baby-scans/ [Accessed 22nd March 2018].
Public Health England. (2014) Exposure to ionising radiation from medical imaging: Safety advice. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ionising-radiation-from-medical-imaging-examinations-safety-advice/exposure-to-ionising-radiation-from-medical-imaging-safety-advice [Accessed 22nd March 2018].
RCOG. (2015) Ultrasound from conception to 10+0 weeks of gestation. Scientific Impact Paper No. 49. Available from: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/scientific-impact-papers/sip-49.pdf [Accessed 22nd March 2018].
RCOG. (2011) Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons. Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment, and use of laparoscopy for surgical problems during pregnancy. Available from: https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/guidelines-research-services/guidelines/radiology-before-pregnancy-confirmed---query-bank/ [Accessed 22nd March 2018].