X-rays During Pregnancy
During our regular hospital visit, while sitting in the waiting hall to meet the doctor we might have noticed charts or posters with the warning sign – PREGNANT, STAY AWAY FROM X-RAY, and even before a diagnostic X-ray the doctor might ask his female patients whether they are pregnant. These warning signs are sometimes enough to shudder a pregnant woman at the mere thought of x-ray, but remember these warning signs are really not meant to scare the patient; they are meant only to create an awareness and to tell women that carefulness is required, if they are pregnant. I understand many out there reading this might be wondering what if I need to have an X-ray done and what if I come to know that I am pregnant after an x-ray. This could be a major concern among pregnant women as they are concerned about the proper development of the baby. Read the article completely to know more about x-ray and pregnancy.
Before knowing the effects of X-ray on a developing fetus, it would be better to first know about x-ray and its uses. X-rays are electromagnetic radiations that are used as a diagnostic tool. The patient is made to stand/sit in front of an x-ray machine that sends individual x-ray particles called photon. These photons pass through the patient’s body and make a picture of the internal organs and bones. On an x-ray, picture dense structures like bone will appear white, air filled spaces will appear black, and muscle, fat, and fluid will appear gray. X-rays help the doctor to get valuable information about the patient’s health and to make accurate diagnosis. But despite these advantages, at times, x-rays form a matter of concern as they pose mild risk of developing cancer, particularly leukemia, in an unborn baby.
Safety of x-rays during pregnancy
This question is still surrounded by an aura of mystery. There are both positive and negative answers for this. But according to American Academy of Family Physicians, x-rays are completely safe during pregnancy. The radiations emitted from an x-ray machine are so mild or low level radiations that it hardly proves bad for a developing fetus. As studies show conflicting results, it is better to avoid x-ray as much possible during pregnancy; but if the doctor decides that x-ray is fine and it is better to have it for the sake of healthy mother and her baby, in such cases she can go ahead without any fear. Remember x-ray during pregnancy is safe only if the doctor says it.
Effect of x-ray on the fetus inside womb
X-rays are powerful radiations that pass through the human body and make a picture of the internal organs. The developing fetus is actually a ball of dividing cell, if the fetus is exposed to radiations there can be a change in the rapidly growing cells that results in birth defect, like leukemia (blood cancer) in the later stage of life. But the risk of developing such complications depends on how far along the pregnancy is and what type of x-ray was taken.
There are different types of x-ray for different purposes, which emit different range of radiation. The x-ray used for diagnostic purpose actually emits very mild radiation that hardly harms the developing fetus. For instance in a dental x-ray only the teeth are exposed and there is hardly any radiations falling on the other parts of the body. Similarly an x-ray of arms, chest or legs does not pose many problems, as none of the reproductive organs are exposed to x-rays. But care must be taken when x-ray of the abdomen, pelvis, kidneys or lower back is taken. The patient should always inform the doctor before any kind of x-ray, if she is pregnant so that the doctor can make necessary arrangements and decide the best for the mother and the baby.
Chances of deformed baby after an x-ray
The chance of having a deformed baby after having an x-ray during pregnancy is very small. The radiation emitted by a diagnostic x-ray is no way near to the dosage required to develop a deformity in the developing fetus. Studies show that atleast a minimum exposure of 5 rads is required to increase the risk in a developing fetus. Radiations above 10 rads have shown to increase the risk of learning disabilities and vision problem. The estimated radiation exposure during various procedures is
- Dental x-ray – 0.01 to 0.02 millirads
- Chest x-ray – 60 millirads
- Abdominal x-ray – 290 millirads
- Computer tomography – 800 millirads
Remember 1 rad is equal to 1000 millirads; therefore women should have 100,000 dental x-rays for the baby to receive 1 rad of radiation. Although these figures show that the chance of hurting a baby by x-rays is very rare, doctor may postpone and unnecessary x-ray until baby is born. The good news is that medical x-rays do not increase the risk of birth deformity in babies; about 4 to 6% of babies who were not exposed to x-rays also develop some kind of birth deformities.
What if a woman finds out to be pregnant after a recent x-ray?
There is nothing to worry as the radiation emitted by a diagnostic x-ray is very low. But if she is worried and concerned she can approach a radiologist who will measure the amount of radiation the fetus is exposed to. Note that usually a fetus should not be exposed to more than 5 rads because radiation from a diagnostic x-ray is much less than 5 rads. Discuss this with the doctor and know the risk of having a baby with birth defects. Many women feel that abortion is the best thing after being exposed to radiation even once but it is not necessary.
Alternative to x-ray during pregnancy
A doctor may recommend an ultrasound in pregnant women instead of x-rays. Ultrasound is a technique where sound waves are used to create a picture of internal organs that are viewed on the TV monitor. Another alternative for x-ray during pregnancy is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is considered safe after the first trimester of pregnancy. Both ultrasound and MRI are not shown to result in any birth complications in the fetus and they can be used as a substitute for x-ray. But there are situations where a doctor feels x-ray is the only best choice for some conditions and for proper treatment, in such case do not panic relax and discuss the issue with the doctor and remember he will not go for an x-ray during pregnancy until and unless it is necessary.
The more a new concept arises, the more is the conflict about that matter. Awareness is very important among people as myths spreads more rapidly than facts. Radiations are of course harmful to a developing fetus but as explained in the article diagnostic radiations are very mild and are not sufficient to induce any birth defect in the fetus. But if a woman is working in a radiation lab or plant, she need to shift her job as the amount of radiation and the duration of radiation exposure will be significantly high than diagnostic radiations. Consulting a healthcare provider before being exposed to x-ray is very important for the safety of both mother and fetus.