A chest CT (computed tomography) scan is an imaging method that uses x-rays to create cross-sectional pictures of the chest and upper abdomen.
Thoracic CT; CT scan - lungs; CT scan - chest
How the Test is Performed
The test is done in the following way:
- You'll likely be asked to change into a hospital gown.
- You lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the scanner. Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's x-ray beam rotates around you.
- You must be still during the exam, because movement causes blurred images. You may be told to hold your breath for short period of time.
The complete scan takes 30 seconds to a few minutes.
You may be given medicine to help you relax during the test.
How to Prepare for the Test
Some people have allergies to IV contrast and may need to take medicine before their test to safely receive this substance.
Contrast can be given in several ways, depending on the type of CT being performed.
- It may be delivered through a vein (IV) in your hand or forearm.
- It may be given through the rectum using an enema.
- You might drink the contrast before your scan. When you actually drink the contrast depends on the type of exam being done. The contrast liquid may taste chalky, although some are flavored to make them taste a little better. The contrast eventually passes out of your body through your stool.
If contrast is used, you may also be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4 to 6 hours before the test.
If you weigh more than 300 pounds (135 kilograms), have your health care provider contact the scanner operator before the exam. CT scanners have an upper weight limit of 300 to 400 pounds (100 to 200 kilograms). Newer scanners can accommodate up to 600 pounds (270 kilograms). Because it is hard for x-rays to pass through metal, you will be asked to remove jewelry.
How the Test will Feel
Some people may have discomfort from lying on the hard table.
Contrast given through an IV may cause a slight burning sensation, a metallic taste in the mouth, and a warm flushing of the body. These sensations are normal and usually go away within a few seconds.
There is no recovery time, unless you were given medicine to relax. After a CT scan, you can go back to your normal diet, activity, and medicines.
Why the Test is Performed
CT quickly creates detailed pictures of the body. The test may be used to get a better view of the structures inside the chest. A CT scan is one of the best ways of looking at soft tissues such as the heart and lungs.
A chest CT may be done:
- After a chest injury
- When a
tumoror mass (clump of cells) is suspected, including a solitary pulmonary nodule seen on a chest x-ray
- To determine the size, shape, and position of organs in the chest and upper abdomen
- To look for bleeding or fluid collections in the lungs or other areas
- To look for infection or inflammation in the chest
- To look for blood clots in the lungs
- To look for scarring in the lungs
What Abnormal Results Mean
Thoracic CT may show many disorders of the heart, lungs, or chest area, including:
tear in the wall, an abnormal widening or ballooning, or narrowingof the major artery carrying blood out of the heart (aorta)
- Other abnormal changes of the major blood vessels in the lungs or chest
- Buildup of
blood or fluid around the heart Lung cancer or cancer that has spread to the lungsfrom elsewhere in the body
- Collection of fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
- Damage to, and widening of the large airways of the lungs (bronchiectasis)
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Lung disorders in which the
lung tissues become inflamedand then damaged.
- Esophageal cancer
- Lymphoma in the chest
- Tumors, nodules, or cysts in the chest
CT scans and other x-rays are strictly monitored and controlled to make sure they use the least amount of radiation. CT scans use low levels of ionizing radiation, which has the potential to cause cancer and other defects. However, the risk from any one scan is small. The risk increases as many more studies are done.
In some cases, a CT scan may still be done if the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. For example, it can be more risky to not have the exam if your provider thinks you might have cancer.
The most common type of contrast given into a vein contains iodine. If a person with an iodine allergy is given this type of contrast, nausea, sneezing, vomiting, itching, or hives may occur. In rare cases, the dye can cause a life-threatening allergic response called anaphylaxis. If you have any trouble breathing during the test, you should notify the scanner operator immediately. Scanners come with an intercom and speakers, so the operator can hear you at all times.
In people with kidney problems, the dye may have harmful effects on the kidneys. In these situations, special steps may be taken to make the contrast dye safer to use.
Shaqdan KW, Otrakji A, Sahani D. Safe use of contrast media. In: Abujudeh HH, Bruno MA, eds. Radiology Noninterpretive Skills: The Requisites. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 20.
Shaw AS, Prokop M. Computed tomography. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, Gillard JH, Schaefer-Prokop CM, eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2015:chap 4.
Review Date: 07/20/2018
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright ©2019 A.D.A.M., Inc., as modified by University of California San Francisco. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Information developed by A.D.A.M., Inc. regarding tests and test results may not directly correspond with information provided by UCSF Health. Please discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.