CT for Kids: What is a CT Scan?

A picture of a CT Scan machine in a hospital

Parents: if your child is having a CT scan, this is the information they (and you) will need to know. Read this “CT for Kids” information yourself or read it to your child to help calm exam-day nerves for the both of you. We’re also here if you want help explaining an MRI exam to your child, or if you want to know more about a very helpful resource we have for helping kids with their imaging exams.

What is a CT Scan?

Sometimes, a doctor needs to look inside your body so that they can see what’s wrong and help you feel better. A CT scan is one way that doctors can take really detailed pictures of your insides so that they can help you.

The CT scanner is a big machine that has several moving parts and a big tunnel in the center. The tunnel looks like a doughnut hole! You lay down on the table like you are going to bed, and it moves through the doughnut hole where the machine takes pictures of your body.

A pink frosted doughnut on a white background

The machine won’t hurt you at all, but you might get a little uncomfortable from staying still for a while during the scan. CT scans can take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, but don’t worry, it’ll be done before you know it!

Why You Might Need a CT Scan

While an X-ray looks at hard things like your bones, a CT scan looks at soft things in your body like your organs, tissues, and muscles. Sometimes, they even look at pictures of your brain! Basically, doctors use CT scans when they need to get a really good picture of the things inside your body so they can help you feel better.

Preparing for the Scan

The person who will do your CT scan is called a technologist. For your scan, you’ll need to wear loose clothes or a gown that they’ll give to you. They might tell you not to eat or drink anything for a couple hours before your scan. Just listen to their instructions, and you will be okay!

A cartoon image of a juice box

Sometimes you need to have a dye called contrast for your CT scan. Contrast is something that will help the technologist take better pictures for the doctors to see. Your technologist might give you the contrast to drink with juice or a yummy flavor like fruit punch, or a nurse might put it in you with a needle. If a nurse uses a needle, it won’t hurt long; it will just feel like a quick pinch.

For a CT scan to work properly, you have to stay really, really still like you do when you play freeze tag or while you’re sleeping. You might need a little help to stay still. If your parent or technologist thinks you’ll need help staying still, they’ll give you something called sedation. This can be in a drink, medicine, or something with a needle. It probably won’t make you go to sleep, it just will help you stay still for the scan.

Say Cheese!

You will lie on the table, and the technologist will give you pillows and strap you down. The straps will be like your seatbelts for the scan. You cannot move once the scan starts, so be sure to tell the technologist if you are really uncomfortable and don’t think you can stay still. It might help you stay still if you pretend that you are a statue.

Once the scan starts, the table will move you through the machine’s “doughnut hole.” This is where they take the pictures of your body. The table will move quickly at first, but it will slow down when the machine starts taking pictures.

A woman with brown hair lies down as she goes into a CT Scanner.

While the machine takes pictures, it moves around you. It might make buzzing and clicking noises, and you might see some special lights. This is just the camera at work!

The technologist will leave the room before the scan starts but won’t leave you completely alone: you’ll be able to talk to them if you need to. They might ask you to hold your breath sometimes so that they can get a better picture. Just take a deep breath in and hold, just like you do when you go underwater. Let’s practice now. Take a deep breath in. Now hold…hold…hold, and now breathe out. Great job! That’s exactly what you’ll do during your scan.

After the Scan

Your technologist will come back in the room when your scan is finished and will help you off the table. You might need to rest a little, and you’ll need to drink lots of water, but you’ll be back to normal in no time.

Your technologist will send the pictures they took to a radiologist, a special kind of doctor who looks at these kind of pictures all the time. Your regular doctor will let you know what they saw on your pictures, and they’ll tell you what to do next.

Parents, learn more about CT scans for kids and how you can best prepare for your child’s exam. UVA Radiology and Medical Imaging offers your family a lot, including specialized pediatric radiologists. We are also a part of the Image Gently campaign, committed to reducing radiation in pediatric imaging. Feel free to contact us with any “CT for kids” questions you may still have.

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