Preparing for an abdominal CT scan

Preparing for an abdominal CT scan

An abdominal computed tomography (CT) scan is an x-ray procedure that obtains detailed, cross-sectional images of the stomach area. Besides the abdomen, CT scans can examine nearly any area of the body, like the head, chest, neck, heart and spine.

Your abdomen contains many organs, including the stomach, liver, kidney, pancreas and spleen. Doctors can use CT scans to assess these organs for injuries, infections, bleeding and other conditions. They can use abdominal CT scans to look for:

  • Hernias.
  • Benign or malignant tumors, masses and lesions.
  • Appendicitis.
  • Blood vessel problems.
  • Kidney stones.
  • The cause of unexplained stomach pain.
  • The cause of blood in the urine.
  • The cause of a fever.
  • The cause of abdominal pain or swelling.

CT scans can also help analyze the progress and effects of treatment for abdominal tumors. They can help plan for and analyze the outcomes of surgeries like organ transplants. Additionally, they can help guide abdominal tissue biopsies. Medical professionals often perform CT scans when other methods — like physical examinations and conventional x-rays — are inconclusive.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you can expect before, during and after your abdominal CT scan.

Jump sections

How do you prepare for your abdominal CT scan?

You may wonder what steps to take before your abdominal CT scan, especially if it’s your first experience with the procedure. Below are some standard preparation measures for CT scans.

1. Fasting

CT scans typically don’t require you to fast unless a special material called contrast dye is used. Contrast agents help enhance the visibility of the body during imaging. They usually consist of iodine, gadolinium or barium.


If your scan doesn’t involve a contrast agent, you can eat and drink as usual before the procedure. If your exam does involve contrast dye, you should not eat any solid foods three hours prior to the test. However, you can drink clear liquids and take any prescribed medications prior to the scan. An acceptable diet includes:

  • Water.
  • Black decaffeinated tea or coffee.
  • Clear broth or soup.
  • Clear soda like ginger ale.
  • Strained fruit juice.
  • Plain gelatin.

If you have diabetes, you should eat a light breakfast or lunch three hours before your scan. However, your doctor may request that you refrain from using your diabetes medication for 48 hours after your exam, depending on the type of medication you take. In some cases, your doctor may order a blood test before your scheduled abdominal CT scan. This helps ensure the contrast dye is safe to use.

Shortly before the scan, your doctor will explain the procedure and answer your questions. Then, they will have you complete the steps below.

2. Removing clothing and metal objects

If you are wearing any metal jewelry, your doctor will ask you to remove it so it doesn’t interfere with the scan. They may also ask you to remove your clothing. In that case, you will be given medical scrubs (top and pants) or a hospital gown to wear during the exam.

3. Signing a consent form

Your doctor may have you sign a consent form if your exam involves contrast dye. This form will outline the substance’s potential side effects and risks.

Though extremely rare, the contrast agent can cause severe or life-threatening reactions. Most reactions to the material are minor, such as a mild rash or an itching sensation. The chance of having any reaction to the dye is very minimal.

Read the form carefully and don’t hesitate to ask about anything that is unclear. Let the doctor know if you are allergic to iodine or have ever experienced a reaction to contrast dyes. They may give you special medicine before your exam so you can safely receive this material.

You should also notify them if:

  • You are taking any medicines, supplements, herbs or vitamins.
  • You are pregnant or believe you may be pregnant.
  • You have kidney problems, as the contrast material can interfere with kidney function.
  • You are claustrophobic — in that case, your doctor can provide medicine to relieve your claustrophobia.

What happens during an abdominal CT scan?

While an abdominal CT scan might look slightly different for everyone, below are the general steps you can expect during the process.

1. Contrast dye injection

If your scan involves contrast dye, your doctor will inject this agent into your hand or arm using an intravenous (IV) line. In some cases, the contrast may be administered rectally or as a drinkable liquid.

You might experience the following effects after the material is injected into the IV line, though they usually only last a few seconds:

  • A slight warm, flushing or burning sensation
  • A metallic or salty taste in the mouth
  • Brief nausea or headache

2. Positioning

The radiologist will have you lie on a narrow table that slides into the large, round opening of the scanner. Straps and pillows may be used to hinder movement during the scan.

Though the radiologist will be in a separate room with the scanner controls, they’ll still be visible through a window at all times. The scanner also has an intercom and speakers so the radiologist can hear and speak to you. They will be in constant communication with you throughout the scan and watching to make sure you’re OK.

You can use the call button if you encounter any problems during the procedure. Let the radiologist know if you experience difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, numbness, heart palpitations or sweating at any point.

3. Scanning

The scanner moves around you, and x-ray beams briefly pass through your body. Remember to stay as still as possible during the test, as movement can cause the images to appear blurry. The radiologist may ask you to hold your breath momentarily at various points throughout the procedure.

The machine will make periodic clicking sounds. The scanner detects the x-rays absorbed by the body’s tissues and sends them to a computer, which organizes the data into an image for interpretation by the radiologist.

What happens after an abdominal CT scan?

What happens after an abdominal CT scan?

The radiologist will remove you from the scanner — and will remove the IV line if one was used — once the exam is complete. They may ask you to wait a short period while they examine the images to ensure everything looks clear. If your scan involved contrast dye, the radiologist may briefly monitor you for any reactions like swelling, itching, rashes or breathing difficulties.

Typically, you can go home shortly after the exam and resume your normal activities. Drink plenty of fluids for 24 hours if your test involves a contrast agent unless otherwise instructed. This helps flush the contrast out of your body. Contact your doctor if you notice any redness, swelling or pain at the IV site after returning home from your scan. This could indicate a reaction or infection.

Your doctor will likely let you know when you can expect your test results. You should receive them fairly quickly, generally within 24-48 hours. Your doctor may also call you or schedule a meeting time to discuss your scan results.

Abdominal CT scan FAQ

Below, we’ll answer some other common questions surrounding this imaging test.

1. Are abdominal CT scans safe?

CT scans involve higher radiation exposure than traditional x-rays since they collect more detailed information. However, the risk from a single scan is very low since it involves low radiation doses for a short period. Many CT scans at high doses would slightly increase your risk of cancer. Additionally, most modern scanners are designed to minimize radiation exposure.

As mentioned earlier, be sure to tell your doctor if you’re pregnant or could be pregnant. The radiation is unlikely to harm your baby. However, your doctor may still recommend another type of scan — like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or an ultrasound — as a precaution to minimize the baby’s radiation exposure.

2. How long does an abdominal CT scan take?

CT scans normally take about an hour. Most of this time is spent preparing for the scan. The exam itself only takes about 10-15 minutes, though it could take slightly longer if contrast dye is involved.

3. How does the IV contrast dye work?

The contrast material highlights the vascular structures (veins and arteries) being analyzed in the images. This makes it easier for the doctor to view them and detect abnormalities like tumors and inflammation.

The dye doesn’t change or alter any tissue. Rather, it enhances the contrast between your organs, bones, tissues and blood vessels. The contrast substance blocks x-rays and appears white in the photos, sharpening different structures for easier analysis. Multiple images also allow for different perspectives of the body.

After the exam, your body will either absorb the contrast material or eliminate it through urine or bowel movements.

4. How do I know if I need contrast dye with my abdominal CT scan?

Similar to MRI scans, CT scans can be performed with and without contrast material. While CT scans with and without contrast dye are effective, not every procedure will require this substance. Your doctor probably won’t order a contrast-enhanced CT scan unless they deem it necessary. They will determine whether you require contrast based on:

  • The type and severity of your current health condition.
  • Your medical history.

Most doctors order contrast dye if they require highly detailed imaging to analyze a certain area in the body.

5. My child is having an abdominal CT scan — can I be in the room with them?

Yes, though we recommend that only one parent be in the room with your child during their exam. You’ll likely be allowed to keep any metal jewelry on, but you may be required to wear a lead apron to mitigate radiation exposure.

We also advise against staying in the room with your child if you are pregnant. If your child is feeling anxious about their CT scan, there are a few options to help them feel more relaxed.

6. Are CT scans painful?

CT scans are generally painless due to the noninvasive nature of the exam. However, some may experience stress and discomfort from lying still for several minutes, particularly those with claustrophobia.

Are CT scans painful?

If you aren’t comfortable remaining still in an enclosed space, the doctor may offer you a sedative to make the process more manageable. Your medical team will do anything they can to ensure you feel safe, comfortable and at ease throughout the procedure.

7. What do CT scan results mean?

If the radiologist does not identify any blood clots, tumors or other irregularities, the CT scan results are considered typical. Atypical results can point to a variety of conditions, such as:

  • Colon, ovarian, pancreatic, liver or kidney cancer.
  • Melanoma.
  • Lymphoma.
  • Pheochromocytoma.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Kidney infection, stones or blockage.
  • Alcohol-related liver disease.
  • Gallstones.
  • Bile duct blockage.
  • Crohn’s disease.
  • Ulcerative colitis.
  • Renal artery stenosis.
  • Renal vein thrombosis.

If the radiologist detects any atypical characteristics during your CT exam, you may require further testing or treatment depending on the atypicality.

8. Will insurance cover my abdominal CT scan?

Typically, insurance will cover CT scans and other diagnostic imaging tests when they are considered medically necessary. Insurance coverage for CT scans can depend on numerous factors, like your insurance plan and the reason for the test.

Your insurance will likely cover your abdominal CT scan in the following circumstances:

  • Diagnosing a condition
  • Evaluating an injury
  • Monitoring the progression of a condition

Most plans are accepted, though you may need prior authorization from the insurance company.

9. What are the potential risks of an abdominal CT scan?

Here are some possible risks of abdominal CT scans and CT scans in general:

  • Radiation exposure
  • Reactions and side effects associated with contrast dye, including itching, rashes, hives, nausea or difficulty breathing
  • Claustrophobia-related effects like sweating, trembling, hot flashes and rapid heartbeat

However, CT technology’s sweeping benefits in the healthcare field vastly outweigh the potential risks. Remember — not receiving a CT scan when your doctor recommends one is riskier than not being scanned at all.

It’s important to catch and address any issues right away, and diagnostic imaging plays a vital role in this process. Early detection of cancer and other diseases can increase the chance of survival.

Request your abdominal CT scan with Envision Imaging today

CT scans are valuable tools for diagnosing and monitoring various medical conditions. If you’re pursuing an abdominal CT scan for yourself or a family member, Envision Imaging is ready to assist you.

Our team provides a range of world-class diagnostic imaging services, including CT scans, MRI scans, x-rays, ultrasounds and more. We also have centers in a variety of locations, including Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Our goal is to give every patient a comfortable and personalized experience. We accomplish this through:

  • Flexible and affordable scheduling options.
  • High-quality, consistent imaging results.
  • Efficient turnaround times.
  • Compassionate care.

Our registered technologists have specialized training in diagnostic radiological procedures. They will administer your exam, interpret your results and deliver a written report to your referring physician. All of our radiologists are certified by the American Board of Radiology (ABR). If you have any special requests to make your exam more comfortable and stress-free, please let us know and we’ll do our best to accommodate them.

Get exceptional radiology services and customized care by choosing Envision Imaging. Request your abdominal CT scan today.

Request your abdominal CT scan with Envision Imaging today