March 2008
Pregnancy and Diagnostic X-Rays: What You Should Know
Critical Care; Emergency Medicine; Internal Medicine and Subspecialties; Obstetrics and Gynecology; Radiology


The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority has received over 90 cases of pregnant patients receiving diagnostic x-rays unaware that they are pregnant. Studies show that some patients have terminated wanted pregnancies because of the fear that the procedure may have harmed the fetus after receiving a diagnostic x-ray. However, analysis and research show that both pregnant patients and physicians may over estimate the risk of an ionizing diagnostic radiation examination (x-ray) on the fetus. Many factors must be determined before a patient considers ending a wanted pregnancy after receiving a diagnostic x-ray unaware that she was pregnant. For example, factors such as how many x-ray procedures have been performed, with what dose and the risk associated with the type of x-ray are important to know prior to making any decision.

Real Life Pennsylvania Cases

A patient was asked if she could be pregnant and the date of her last menstrual period. The patient responded that she receives contraception injections and does not get periods. The patient signed a release indicating she was not pregnant. An x-ray of the abdomen was performed, which revealed a fetus.

Over a seven-week period of time, a 19-year-old patient received the following studies: abdomen x-ray, CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis with and without contrast, retrograde x-ray, chest x-ray and cystogram. For each visit, the patient was asked if she was or could be pregnant, and she denied pregnancy each time. At the end of the seven weeks, an ultrasound showed a viable intrauterine pregnancy of seven weeks and one day.

A patient arrived in the emergency room with a chief complaint of back pain. She was asked if she was pregnant, and she stated no. X-ray films were read, revealing a fetus of over 31 weeks. The patient was notified of the pregnancy, at which time she stated her last menstrual period was seven months ago.

What You Should Know and Do:
  • Radiation is energy that comes from different sources, including heat and light from the sun, microwaves or x-rays.
  • A certain type of radiation, called ionizing radiation, may be strong enough to cause damage to human cells.
  • Patients are exposed to different amounts of ionizing radiation during certain kinds of tests, including x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans and fluoroscopy tests.
  • Women who are pregnant or suspect they may be pregnant are advised to discuss with their physician the possible risks of radiation exposure to themselves and their fetus prior to having any type of x-ray, CT scan or fluoroscopy test.
  • The risk of damage caused by x-rays, CT scans and fluoroscopy tests is low.
  • Women who are pregnant may be exposed to ionizing radiation from these tests before they know they are pregnant.
  • The risk to a fetus from most kinds of tests involving ionizing radiation is low.
  • Ionizing radiation from certain kinds of tests add up over a patient’s lifetime. It is important to tell your doctor about tests you have had in the past.

For more copies of these tips and other healthcare consumer information click on “Patient Information" and "Safety Tips for Patients" at For a related article on the risks of pregnancy and diagnostic x-rays click here.

©2018 Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority