X-ray radiation worries

Dr Mark Porter / 22 December 2016

Dr Porter advises a reader who is concerned about radiation from x-rays.

Q: What are the long-term dangers of having too many X-rays?  I injured my chest and punctured a lung in a skiing accident last Easter and have had five chest X-rays since.  Surely all that radiation can’t be good for me – if it was, the radiographers wouldn’t walk around in lead aprons!

A: Around 50 million medical and dental X-rays are performed every year in the UK, and although they can deliver significant doses of radiation, they still only account for around a seventh of the average person’s lifetime exposure – nearly all of the rest coming from natural background radioactive sources such as granite and radon gas. 

Exposure to radiation – either natural or background – can cause cancer but this theoretical risk needs to be offset against the practical benefits of helping the doctor make a diagnosis and decide on treatment.   Fortunately the doses of radiation are generally miniscule - a typical chest X-ray exposes the patient to a dose equivalent to just three days exposure to natural background sources, and an X-ray of the skull just seven days – so the benefits invariably far outweigh the risks. 

This balance of risk becomes more pertinent with investigations that require much higher exposures such as an X-ray of the lower back which delivers a dose equivalent to seven months worth of background radiation, and a CT scan of the abdomen or pelvis at more than two years. But these investigations should only be reserved for more complicated cases where the benefits of helping the doctor make a diagnosis and decide on treatment tend to be considerable.  

I doubt your cumulative exposure amounted to much more than you would have received if you had spent a couple of weeks in a granite cottage in Cornwall, and I would forget it. 

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