Computed Tomography (CT) Abdominal Scan for Children

What is a CT abdominal scan for children?

A CT abdominal scan is a type of imaging test. It uses a series of X-rays and a computer to create detailed images of the inside of the body. A CT scan shows more detail than a regular X-ray.

A CT scan of the belly (abdomen) can diagnose abdominal problems in babies and children. It's a noninvasive medical test. This means it isn't done with an incision or tool that goes inside your child's body.

Why might my child need a CT abdominal scan?

Your child may need a CT abdominal scan so the healthcare provider can:

  • Find the cause of belly (abdominal) pain by providing access to the stomach, liver, kidney, and spleen

  • Diagnose an infection in the abdomen

  • Diagnose digestive problems

  • Diagnose urinary problems

  • Look at abdominal injuries

  • Diagnose or plan treatment for cancer

The scan can help diagnose problems, such as:

  • Appendicitis

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

  • Abdominal tumors

  • Kidney stones

  • Birth defects

Your child’s healthcare provider may have other reasons to advise this test.

What are the risks of a CT abdominal scan for a child?

A CT scan uses radiation. Repeated exposure to radiation raises a person’s risk for cancer in the future. The CT scan should be done with the lowest possible radiation dose needed for the images to diagnose your child's problem. Children are more sensitive to radiation than adults. For this reason, a CT scan should only be done if it's vital for making a diagnosis. In some cases, an MRI or ultrasound may be used in place of a CT scan. These tests don’t use radiation.

The benefits of a CT scan often outweigh this risk. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about the amount of radiation and the best choices for your child.

Other risks include:

  • Allergic reactions. A contrast dye is sometimes used during a CT abdominal scan. Some children may have an allergic reaction, such as hives, itching, or wheezing. This is more common in children who are allergic to iodine or shellfish. These types of reactions are rare and aren't usually serious.

  • Reaction to sedation or anesthesia. Some younger children who can’t hold still during a CT scan may need a brief period of anesthesia or sedation. In some children, this may cause headache, shivering, and vomiting. Ask the healthcare provider about this risk if your child needs to be asleep or sedated during the test.

  • Kidney damage from IV (intravenous) contrast dye. This is rare. It's more likely in a child who already has kidney problems.

There may be other risks. This depends on your child’s health. Talk about any concerns you have with the healthcare provider before the scan.

How do I help my child get ready for a CT abdominal scan?

You can help your child by preparing them in advance. Many hospitals have people trained in helping children cope with their medical care or hospital experience. These people are often called child life specialists. Check with your child’s healthcare provider to see if child life programs or other similar services are available for your child.

There are also things you can do to help your child get ready for a test. How best to do this depends on your child’s needs. Start with the tips below:

  • Use short and simple terms to describe the test to your child and why it’s being done. Younger children tend to have a short attention span, so do this shortly before the test. Older children can be given more time to understand the test in advance.

  • Tell your child what to expect in the hospital during the test. For instance, you could talk about who will be giving your child the test and what the hospital room will look like.

  • Make sure your child understands which body parts will be involved in the test.

  • As best you can, describe how the test will feel. For instance, if your child is awake during the test, they may feel some discomfort or pressure if a needle is inserted. This would be when IV contrast is used. Reassure your child that this discomfort won’t last long.

  • Allow your child to ask questions and answer these questions truthfully. Your child may feel nervous or afraid. They may even cry. Let your child know that you’ll be nearby during the test.

  • Use play when telling your child about the test, if appropriate. With younger children, this can involve role-playing with a child’s favorite toy or object. With older children, it may help to read books or show pictures of what happens during the test.

Tell the healthcare provider:

  • If your child ever had a reaction to any contrast dye

  • Has any implanted device or metal clips or pins in their body

  • If your child is allergic to iodine or shellfish

  • What prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, or other supplements your child takes

  • If your child has heart disease, diabetes, asthma, thyroid, or kidney disease

  • Has had a recent illness or infection

Also make sure to:

  • Follow all instructions given by the healthcare provider to prepare your child for the test.

  • Stop giving your child certain medicines or supplements before the test, if directed.

  • Food or drink may be not allowed several hours before the scan. See that your child doesn't eat or drink for 8 hours before the test if contrast dye or anesthesia will be used during the test.

  • See that your child isn't wearing metal objects, such as jewelry, hair clips, or clothing with zippers. Metal can affect CT imaging.

  • Dress your child in comfortable clothes on the day of the test.

What happens during a CT abdominal scan for a child?

The CT scanner is a large machine in the shape of a circle. It has a narrow table that moves through the hole while X-rays are taken.

Your child may have a CT scan at a hospital or an outpatient facility. You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.

The test takes about 30 to 60 minutes. Some may take longer. You may be able to stay with your child in the CT room. Or you may be asked to wait in another area during the procedure. If you stay, you'll need to wear a lead apron. If you're pregnant or think you may be pregnant, talk with your healthcare provider first.

During the procedure:

  • Your child lies on a narrow table that slides into the CT scanner.

  • Your child will need to lie still during the scan. Movement affects the quality of the results and can even require a repeat scan. Your child may be restrained or given medicine to relax (sedative) or sleep (anesthesia). The sedative is taken by mouth or given through an IV line. A nurse helps with this process.

  • The technologist is nearby and views your child through a window. If your child is awake, they can speak to and hear the technologist through a speaker inside the scanner.

  • Contrast dye may be used to improve image results. Your child is given contrast dye by mouth or an IV line. If contrast dye is given through an IV line, your child may feel a warm sensation when it's injected and may have a metallic taste for a short time. Contrast dye may be given as a drink. It may be mixed with juice or soda to mask the taste.

  • Once the scan begins, your child will need to lie very still at all times. Movement will affect the quality of the images. At times, your child will be told to hold their breath for a few seconds.

  • The scan is painless and lasts between 5 and 20 seconds. Your child may hear clicking, whirring, and buzzing sounds as the scanner rotates around the exam table.

What happens after a CT abdominal scan for a child?

Once the procedure is done, the table will slide out of the scanner. If your child had medicine to relax or sleep, they'll be watched until the medicine wears off and they're awake again. If an IV line was inserted, it will be taken out after the procedure is over and your child is awake.

If no sedation was used, your child can go back to normal activities and diet right away, unless the healthcare provider says otherwise. Contrast dye should pass through your child’s body in about 24 hours. Your child may need to drink more water during this time.                                                                                                                                                        

If your child had sedation, they may feel sleepy for a while. This should go away in a few hours or a day.                                                  

Your child’s healthcare provider will talk with you about the results of the CT scan, and let you know if other tests are needed.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or procedure for your child make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure

  • The reason your child is having the test or procedure

  • What results to expect and what they mean

  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure

  • When and where your child is to have the test or procedure

  • Who will do the procedure and what that person’s qualifications are

  • What would happen if your child did not have the test or procedure

  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about

  • When and how you will get the results

  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or your child has problems

  • How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
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