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An abdominal CT scan is an imaging method that uses x-rays to create cross-sectional pictures of the belly area. CT stands for computed tomography.

Alternative Names

Computed tomography scan – abdomen; CT scan – abdomen; CAT scan – abdomen

How the test is performed

You will lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner. Most often, you will lie on your back with your arms raised above the head.

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 belly area, called slices. These images can be stored, viewed on a monitor, or printed on film. Three-dimensional models of the belly area can be made 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.

The scan should take less than 30 minutes.

How to prepare for the test

You need to have a special dye, called contrast, put into your body before some exams. Contrast helps certain areas show up better on the x-rays.

  • Contrast can be given through a vein (IV) in your hand or forearm. If contrast is used, you may also be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4-6 hours before the test.
  • You may have to drink the contrast before the exam. When you drink it will depend on the type of exam being done. Contrast has a chalky taste although some have flavors so that they taste a little better.
  • The contrast will pass out of your body through your stools.
  • Let your doctor know if you have ever had a reaction to contrast. You may need to take medicines before the test in order to safely receive this substance.
  • Before receiving the contrast, tell your health care provider if you take the diabetes medication metformin(Glucophage). People taking this medicine may have to stop taking it for a while before the test.

Too much weight can damage the scanner.  Find out if the CT machine has a weight limit if you weigh more than 300 pounds.

You will need to take off your jewelry and wear a hospital gown during the study.

How the test will feel

Lying on the hard table may be a little bit uncomfortable.

If you have contrast through a vein (IV), you may have:

  • Slight burning sensation
  • Metallic taste in the mouth
  • Warm flushing of the body

 These feelings are normal and go away within a few seconds.

Why the test is performed

An abdominal CT scan makes detailed pictures of the structures inside your belly (abdomen) very quickly.

This test may be used to look for: 

  • Cause of abdominal pain or swelling
  • Hernia
  • Cause of a fever
  • Masses and tumors, including cancer
  • Infections or injury
  • Kidney stones
  • Appendicitis

What abnormal results mean

The abdominal CT scan may show some cancers, including:

  • Breast cancer
  • Cancer of the renal pelvis or ureter
  • Colon cancer
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Pheochromocytoma
  • Renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer)
  • Testicular cancer

The abdominal CT scan may show problems with the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas, including:

  • Acute cholecystitis
  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Cholelithiasis
  • Pancreatic abscess
  • Pancreatic pseudocyst
  • Pancreatitis
  • Sclerosing cholangitis

The abdominal CT scan may reveal the following kidney problems:

  • Acute bilateral obstructive uropathy
  • Acute unilateral obstructive uropathy
  • Chronic bilateral obstructive uropathy
  • Chronic unilateral obstructive uropathy
  • Complicated UTI (pyelonephritis)
  • Kidney stones
  • Kidney swelling (hydronephrosis)
  • Kidney or ureter damage
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Ureterocele

Abnormal results may also be due to:

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Abscesses
  • Appendicitis
  • Bowel wall thickening
  • Retroperitoneal fibrosis
  • Renal artery stenosis
  • Renal vein thrombosis

What the risks are

Risks of CT scans include:

  • Allergy to contrast dye
  • Exposure to radiation

CT scans expose you to more radiation than regular x-rays. Many x-rays or CT scans over time may increase your risk for cancer. However, the risk from any one scan is small. Talk to your doctor about this risk and the benefit of the test for getting a correct diagnosis of your 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 you have an iodine allergy, you may have  nausea or vomiting,sneezing, itching,or hives if you get this type of contrast.
  • If you must be given such contrast, your doctor may give you antihistamines (such as Benadryl) or steroids before the test.
  • Your kidneys help remove iodine out of the body. You may need extra fluids after the test to help flush the iodine out of the body if you have kidney disease or diabetes.

Rarely, the dye may cause a life-threatening allergic response called anaphylaxis. Tell the scanner operator right away if you have any trouble breathing during the test.. Scanners come with an intercom and speakers, so the operator can hear you at all times.

Related:Aortic aneurysm repair – endovascular- discharge , CT scan, X-ray, Kidney stones, Appendicitis, Abdominal aortic aneurysm, Abscess, Acute cholecystitis, Addison disease, Amebic Liver
Abscess, Bilateral hydronephrosis, Irritable bowel syndrome, Cancer – renal pelvis or ureter, Cholangiocarcinoma, Choledocholithiasis, Gallstones, Chronic cholecystitis, Chronic pancreatitis, Cystinuria, Cyst, Echinococcus, Swollen lymph nodes, Intestinal obstruction, Glucagonoma, Hairy cell leukemia, Liver cancer – Hepatocellular carcinoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, Pancreatic islet cell tumor, Multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) II, Nephrocalcinosis, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Ovarian cancer, Pancreatic abscess, Pancreatic cancer, Pancreatic pseudocyst, Pheochromocytoma, Hyperaldosteronism – primary and secondary, Pyogenic liver abscess, Renal cell carcinoma, Retroperitoneal fibrosis, Sclerosing cholangitis, Testicular cancer, Unilateral hydronephrosis, Ureterocele, Wilms tumor, Wilson’s disease, Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, Acute kidney failure, Alcoholic liver disease, Atheroembolic renal disease, Chronic kidney disease, Cushing syndrome, Cushing syndrome due to adrenal tumor, Injury – kidney and ureter, Medullary cystic kidney disease, Multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) I, Polycystic kidney disease, Reflux nephropathy, Renal vein thrombosis, Aortic aneurysm repair – endovascular, Abdominal aortic aneurysm repair – open