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Are X-Rays Safe for Pregnant Women?

Pregnant woman

X-rays are a type of penetrating radiation that, depending on the dose, can reduce cell division, damage genetic material, and harm unborn children. Cells that divide quickly are very sensitive to X-ray exposure. Unborn children are particularly sensitive to X-rays because their cells are rapidly dividing and developing into different types of tissue. Exposure of pregnant women to sufficient doses of X-rays could possibly result in birth defects or, eventually, illnesses such as leukemia.

Depending on the dose, X-rays could potentially harm an unborn child. The FDA has stated the following: "There is scientific disagreement about whether the small amounts of radiation used in diagnostic radiology can actually harm the unborn child, but it is known that the unborn child is very sensitive to the effects of things like radiation, certain drugs, excess alcohol, and infection. This is true, in part, because the cells are rapidly dividing and growing into specialized cells and tissues. If radiation or other agents were to cause changes in these cells, there could be a slightly increased chance of birth defects or certain illnesses, such as leukemia, later in life."

Women who have been X-rayed before realizing they are pregnant should discuss this with their doctors. All women who are or may be pregnant should inform their doctors before being X-rayed. Informing doctors about a possible pregnancy allows them to weigh the risks and benefits.

The doctor may decide that it would be best to cancel the X-ray examination, to postpone it, or to modify it to reduce the amount of radiation. Or, depending on your medical needs, and realizing that the risk is very small, the doctor may feel that it is best to proceed with the X-ray as planned. In any case, you should feel free to discuss the decision with your doctor.

Above content provided by the US Dept of Health & Human Services in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted September 2011