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Radiation exposure during pregnancy

5-minute read

If you’re pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, you might be worried about x-rays and other forms of radiation. It's important you discuss any concerns with your doctor and always tell a health professional that you are pregnant.

What is radiation?

Radiation is energy that travels through air, and some materials, as waves or tiny particles. Australians are exposed daily to radiation from different natural and artificial sources, including the radiation used in medical procedures such as x-rays.

Each year, everyone living in Australia is exposed to background radiation equivalent to having between 50 and 100 chest x-rays.

X-rays and some other forms of radiation can alter the molecules that make up our body. At high enough doses, radiation can kill cells and damage genes.

Medical procedures that give off radiation

If you are pregnant or think you might be pregnant, you should be cautious about medical procedures that use radiation, such as:

Tell your doctor and tell the radiology practice before you have any tests. You can discuss whether they can be delayed or avoided, and whether there are alternative tests.

Tests that don’t use radiation, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound, may be useful alternatives in some situations.

Effects of radiation on a mother and unborn baby?

Any harm to the developing baby will depend on:

  • the radiation dose – smaller doses (amounts) are safer
  • the age of the fetus – the further along you are in your pregnancy, the better
  • where the radiation is administered – tests involving your abdomen or pelvis, or where the radiation is carried in your blood, pose a higher risk than other tests

Most radiation exposure during medical testing is unlikely to harm a developing baby. But sometimes, depending on the radiation dose and the developmental stage of the fetus the effects can be serious and may result in:

If you are accidently exposed to radiation while you are pregnant, you should talk to your doctor. The risk to your baby can be worked out using a formula and should be calculated by an expert. Most normal doses or a single exposure to radiation are not likely to be harmful to the baby.

Breastfeeding mothers and radiotherapy

Radioactive material can be passed to babies through breast milk. Breastfeeding mothers undergoing radiotherapy or exposed to it in a radiation emergency should stop breastfeeding until seen by a health professional.

If you are exposed to radiation, you should feed your baby with pre-pumped and stored breast milk or formula, if possible.

If there is no other source of food available to feed your baby, then continue to breastfeed, but wipe the breast and nipple thoroughly with soap and water before feeding.

Speak to your doctor or health professional about when to start breastfeeding again.

Having radiotherapy while you are pregnant

Sometimes a pregnant woman is advised to have radiotherapy as a treatment for cancer during pregnancy. If you’re in this situation, you and your doctor can weigh up the benefits of the radiotherapy against any potential harm to your developing baby.

Caring for someone having radiotherapy or chemotherapy

If you’re caring for someone who is receiving treatment for cancer, they might be having radiotherapy or chemotherapy or possibly both. While chemotherapy uses medicines, and does not give off radiation, it’s important to understand what both radiotherapy and chemotherapy involve and when there might be risks to someone who is pregnant.

Radiotherapy

There are 2 types of radiation therapy: external and internal. After receiving radiation treatment in hospital from an external source, the patient doesn’t retain any of the radiation so it is safe for a pregnant woman to be around them.

Internal radiation treatment, however, uses an implant to release the radiation. Some implants only stay in the body for a few days, while others are permanent. This will affect how long the patient remains radioactive.

Radiotherapy can also be given as a liquid or an injection, known as nuclear medicine. This type of treatment can result in very low levels of radiation for a few days.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses powerful medicines to kill cells. People who do not have cancer should avoid direct contact with these medicines.

After chemotherapy sessions, the medicines stay in the body for up to a week. They are released throughout the week in bodily fluids such as urine, faeces, vomit, sweat, saliva, vaginal discharge, semen and breast milk.

If you or someone else is receiving chemotherapy, and you are pregnant, you should protect yourself and those around you.

  • The person with cancer should use a plastic bucket when they need to vomit. Throw the bucket away after the final chemotherapy session.
  • Use disposable gloves to clean up spills and throw the clean-up materials away.
  • Take care not to splash urine when going to the toilet.
  • Wear disposable gloves when handling the soiled clothes or bedding of someone who is having chemotherapy.
  • Don’t crush, chew or break up chemotherapy tablets.
  • Keep any chemotherapy medicines in a safe place, out of the reach of children.
  • Wash soiled clothes and linen separately from other clothes.
  • Use condoms if you have sex with someone who is having chemotherapy.

If you are pregnant and caring for someone who is undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy, it’s important to discuss your situation with the doctor.

Radiation, pregnancy and the workplace

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, and your work exposes you to radiation, it is important to discuss alternative roles with your employer.

Speak to a healthcare professional if you are worried about radiotherapy exposure during pregnancy.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2019


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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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