In the high-tech world we live in, there can be numerous sources of radiation to which women, pregnancies, and children are exposed. This is a developing field of research, so there are not clear answers to all questions, but I will try to address common concerns about radiation exposure during pregnancy. In general, women should be reassured as the majority of pregnancies are uncomplicated and do not suffer negative side effects of radiation.
When exposed in HIGH DOSES, radiation can cause the following complications in pregnancy:
- Pregnancy loss- miscarriage or stillbirth
- Birth defects
- Developmental or growth defects
- Carcinogenic effects
The effects of radiation depend on the dose and also the timeframe in which a woman is exposed. During the first two weeks after conception, radiation exposure causes an “all or none” effect in which the pregnancy continues without complication, or the pregnancy is lost. The organs are developing during weeks 4-10. Radiation complications during this time are typically birth defects (particularly of the nervous system) or growth restriction. After 20-25 weeks, birth defects are rare.
What If I need an X-Ray during Pregnancy?
When facing the possibility of diagnostic imaging that can expose a pregnancy to radiation, pregnant women and doctors must work together to weigh the risks and benefits. Unfortunately, traumatic injuries are common in pregnancy, occurring in 5-8% of pregnancies. They are the most common non-obstetric cause of maternal death. For this reason, the proper diagnosis and treatment is needed for the safety of the mother and fetus, and this often requires imaging and radiation (such as x-ray, CT scan). Ultrasound and MRI imaging have not been shown to cause any complications to pregnancy.
Most imaging procedures expose the woman and fetus to LESS than 0.05 Gray (Gy), or 5 rads. This includes chest x-ray or abdominal x-ray, dental x-ray, mammogram, CT of the chest or CT of the abdomen. When able, a shield over the abdomen is used to protect the fetus if imaging is done of another body part such as dental x-ray, chest x-ray, or extremity x-rays. CT scan of the pelvis exposes the pregnancy to higher dose of radiation, but can be considered when necessary for accurate diagnosis and treatment.
When radiation is less than 5 rads, there is not an increased risk of birth defects, intellectual disability, growth restriction, or pregnancy loss. When a woman requires repeated scans and radiation exposure, obstetricians can work with medical physicists to determine the total fetal exposure and possible side effects. This type of situation is very rare during pregnancy.
Is My Cell Phone Causing a Problem?
In addition to medical imaging, women are exposed to radiation from a variety of other sources. As previously stated, most radiation exposure during pregnancy will not cause complications. Radiation from everyday exposure (computers, microwave ovens, power lines, cell phones, household appliances, heating pads, airport screening devices) has been studied and the risk has been found to be minimal or nonexistent.
Some commercial companies sell products aiming to protect pregnant women from radiation. These can be in the form of a belly band, maternity tank top, or blanket to drape over your abdomen and lap. Though this may provide a potential benefit and protection for pregnancy, I would not at this time confidently recommend it for all of my patients as there is not enough research to show that there is a true benefit. However, it certainly does not pose a risk to pregnancy, so if a patient wanted to invest in and use this type of product, that would be fine too.
Research in this area is difficult, but there is not great evidence for an association between a woman’s use of a video display terminal (computer screen, cell phone, etc) and fetal loss or other reproductive complications.
For further reassurance, think about the drastic increase of technology and wireless devices this century. There has NOT been an associated rise in miscarriage or birth defects over this time period. Even with widespread use of cell phones, computers, and household appliances, the vast majority of pregnancies have good outcomes. It is important for patients to be aware of risks, but also important to stay relaxed and not stress too much during pregnancy!
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By Loriana Soma, M.D. - Expert Obstetrician/Gynecologist