You will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner.
Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's x-ray beam rotates around you. (Modern "spiral" scanners can perform the exam without stopping.)
A computer creates separate images of the body area, called slices. These images can be stored, viewed on a monitor, or printed on film. Three-dimensional models of the body area can be created by stacking the slices together.
You must be still during the exam, because movement causes blurred images. You may be told to hold your breath for short periods of time.
Generally, complete scans take only a few minutes. The newest scanners can image your entire body, head to toe, in less than 30 seconds.
How to prepare for the test
Certain exams require a special dye, called contrast, to be delivered into the body before the test starts. Contrast helps certain areas show up better on the x-rays.
Let your doctor know if you have ever had a reaction to contrast. You may need to take medications before the test in order to safely receive this substance.
Contrast can be given several ways, and depends 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 it taste a little better. The contrast eventually passes out of your body through your stools.
If contrast is used, you may also be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4-6 hours before the test.
Before receiving the contrast, tell your health care provider if you take the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage) because you may need to take extra precautions.
If you weigh more than 300 pounds, find out if the CT machine has a weight limit. Too much weight can cause damage to the scanner's working parts.
You will be asked to remove jewelry and wear a hospital gown during the study.
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.
Why the test is performed
CT rapidly creates detailed pictures of the body, including the brain, chest, spine, and abdomen. The test may be used to:
Diagnose an infection
Guide a surgeon to the right area during a biopsy
Identify masses and tumors, including cancer
Study blood vessels
Results are considered normal if the organs and structures being examined are normal in appearance.
What abnormal results mean
Abnormal results depend on the part of the body being studied. Talk to your health care provider with any questions and concerns.
What the risks are
Risks of CT scans include:
Being exposed to radiation
Allergic reaction to contrast dye
CT scans do expose you to more radiation than regular x-rays. Having many x-rays or CT scans over time may increase your risk for cancer. However, the risk from any one scan is small. You and your doctor should weigh this risk against the benefits of getting a correct diagnosis for a medical problem.
Some people have allergies to contrast dye. Let your doctor know if you have ever had an allergic reaction to injected contrast dye.
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 or vomiting,sneezing, itching,or hives may occur.
If you absolutely must be given such contrast, your doctor may give you antihistamines (such as Benadryl) or steroids before the test.
The kidneys help remove iodine out of the body. Those with kidney disease or diabetes may need to receive extra fluids after the test to help flush the iodine out of the body.
Rarely, the dye may 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.
Shaw AS, Dixon AK. Multidetector computed tomography. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 5th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 4.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.