A chest CT scan is a particular test used to diagnose COPD, usually following an initial chest X-ray. This painless imaging exam is more detailed than a chest X-ray, taking numerous cross-sectional pictures of the lungs and other organs inside the chest (as well as blood vessels and bones) from various angles, which are then combined by a computer into 3-D images. These images, or models, help to show the size, shape, and position of chest organs to detect disease, injury, or the cause of conditions like shortness of breath or chest pain.
In people with COPD, chest CT scans are used to detect emphysema (damage to the walls of bronchial air sacs, leading to poor gas exchange), chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the airway lining), or to determine whether another condition, such as heart failure, is causing COPD symptoms.
How to prepare for a chest CT scan
Chest CT scans are done in medical imaging facilities or in hospitals by trained personnel. Before the test, you may be asked not to eat or drink anything to ensure clear images, and you should wear loose and comfortable clothing (although you may be asked to don a gown). Avoid wearing jewelry, belts, or clothes with zippers, as metal objects will likely need to be removed.
These scanners are donut-like machines, and you will lay on a table that slides into the scanner. The test is painless, but let your doctor know ahead of time if you feel uncomfortable in tight or enclosed spaces. You may be prescribed a medication to relax you during the exam, which could help.
For some tests, you may need to be injected with a contrast dye, usually an iodine-based dye, that highlights areas inside the chest. The dye helps to create clearer images for a better diagnosis, but could leave a metallic taste in your mouth.
During the scan
The CT scanner rotates around your chest as you pass through it. You will likely hear buzzing and clicking noises as the images are taken, and detectors and an X-ray tube rotate about the body. The technician operating the machine, likely in another room, will be watching and you can communicate via an intercom. You may be asked to hold your breath on occasion to produce clearer images, but generally good images are captured by lying very still and breathing normally.
Most scans take between 10 and 20 minutes.
When the test is done, a radiologist will analyze the images and send a report to your doctor.
Other points about CT scans
Chest CT scans are fast, painless, and generally safe. Usually you don’t experience any effects, and can go home immediately after the test.
This test does expose you to a small amount of radiation, greater than that of a chest X-ray — but lower than the normal background radiation a person is exposed to over three years. Pregnant women or women who think they might be pregnant should tell their doctor, so protective measures might be taken or another type of exam considered.
If a contrast dye is used, you may feel some discomfort from the needle, and after the injection experience a warm feeling throughout the body or a metallic taste in the mouth. A few people may be allergic to the contrast dye, but such reactions are rare.
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