What to expect when you have a CT scan
A CT scan combines a series of X-ray images to provide a cross-sectional view of bones and soft tissues inside your body to identify internal abnormalities.
What is a CT scan?
A CT scan (computerised tomography) is a commonly used test that uses a series of X-rays and a computer to generate cross-sectional images of the inside of your body. You’ll sometimes hear it called a CAT scan but it’s the same x-ray procedure. A CT scan is painless and millions are performed every year in the UK.
Purpose of a CT scan
There are many reasons you may be offered a CT scan. Doctors use them to diagnose conditions including damage to bones, injuries to internal organs and problems with blood flow, stroke and cancer.Footnote 1
If you have a condition that your doctor wants to monitor they may order a series of CT scans. It means they can assess your condition over time and plan the right treatment for you. Along similar lines, you may have a CT scan for doctors to use as a guide when planning surgery.
Preparing for a CT scan
Depending on what part of your body is being scanned you might be asked to not eat or drink anything for several hours before your appointment. If you’re having your large bowel scanned you may be given laxatives to take or a special diet for a couple of days before the procedure.
When you arrive at your scan you may be asked to change into a medical gown, depending on which part of your body is being scanned. The radiographer may ask you to remove jewellery, contact lenses, hearing aids or anything else that could have metal in it, as it can interfere with the scanning equipment. Double check as you do this - commonly forgotten items are skin patches, hair grips and magnetic eyelashes!
A CT scan with contrast dye
You may be given a contrast dye before the scan, either in the form of a drink, an enema (an injection of fluid into the rectum to stimulate the bowel) or an injection. This helps highlight the areas of the body that need to be examined.
If you’re drinking the contrast dye because you’re having a scan of your stomach it may have to be taken some time before the scan. You’ll likely be given an earlier appointment to do this.
The contrast medium can give you a metallic taste in your mouth, and might make you feel warm for a short time. You may also feel like you need to use the toilet depending on what part of the body has received the dye.
CT scan procedure
For the procedure you’ll be carefully positioned and made comfortable on a motorised scanner table, usually flat on your back. The scan takes between 10 and 20 minutes.
You’ll pass into the scanner, which is a ring, shaped like a large doughnut on its side - if you’re prone to feeling claustrophobic, you don’t need to worry, as the scanner doesn’t surround your whole body at once like an MRI scanner.
The radiographer will be in another room operating the scan. They can speak to you and may ask you to breathe in and out, or hold your breath at certain times. If you need to ask a question or just some reassurance, you can speak to them through an intercom.
Afterwards you may be asked to wait for a short time before leaving for the technician to check you are feeling well. If you’ve had contrast dye you may be told to drink lots of fluids to clear your kidneys.
CT scan risks
Your doctor will talk you through the risks if you are worried. You’re exposed to a low dose of X-ray radiation which could slightly increase your chances of developing cancer in the future, but this risk is very small - less than 1 in 2000.Footnote 2
If you’re pregnant, the imaging will deliver very little radiation to the baby and is usually fine if you’re in the second or third trimester. Again, the radiographer or your doctor, will talk to you about any risk involved.
If you’re having contrast dye there is a small risk you could have an allergic reaction. Most reactions happen within an hour and can include nausea, vomiting, itching or wheezing. Severe allergies can be life-threatening but are extremely rare.
It’s a good idea to talk to the radiographer if you have allergies and are worried the dye could affect you.
Alternatives to CT scan
Depending on your condition your doctor may offer an alternative scan.
If you’re pregnant, especially in the early stages, you may be offered an ultrasound scan, as ultrasound doesn’t use any radiation, making it a safer alternative. Ultrasound is also often used for children, again, to avoid radiation exposure.
An MRI scan produces clearer images and gives a better picture of soft tissue and inflammation than a CT scan. Your doctor might advise this as an alternative if you have a condition like a torn ligament or a nerve problem.
A traditional X-Ray scan can also be given – most commonly to look at bones and joints. It uses a type of radiation called electromagnetic waves to create pictures inside of the body.
You can use your cover to pay for your CT scan
CT scans are just one of the scans which are available, and if recommended by the specialist for the condition you have, then benefit may be available based on your policy terms.
Once we’ve confirmed your claim meets the terms of your policy, we’ll pay for the scan directly. Just be sure to tell us if you need more tests or treatment, or if your hospital or specialist changes.
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