A neck CAT scan is a painless test that uses a specialized X-ray machine to make
images of the soft tissues and organs of the neck, including the muscles, throat,
tonsils, adenoids, airways, thyroid, and other glands. The blood vessels and upper
spinal cord are also seen. CAT scans are also called CT scans or computed axial
The doughnut-shaped machine circles the neck, taking pictures to provide cross-sections
of its internal structures from various angles. These pictures are sent to a computer
that records the images. It can also put them together to form three-dimensional (3-D)
images. CAT scans are performed by radiology technicians.
Why It's Done
A neck CAT scan can detect signs of disease in the throat and surrounding areas.
Doctors may order a neck CAT scan to look for signs of an infection (such as an abscess),
a birth defect, cysts, or tumors.
Your child may be asked to remove all clothing and accessories and change into
a hospital gown because buttons, zippers, clasps, or jewelry might interfere with
Your child may have to avoid eating and drinking anything for a few hours before
the scan so his or her stomach is empty. Fasting is required if your child has to
be sedated or needs to receive a contrast solution, which highlights certain parts
of the body so doctors can see more detail in specific areas of the CAT scan.
If your daughter is pregnant, it's important to tell the technician or doctor because
there's a small chance that the radiation from the CAT scan may harm the developing
baby. But if the CAT scan is necessary, precautions can be taken to protect the fetus.
The scan itself can usually be completed in about 10 minutes. The total time depends
on the age of the patient, whether contrast solution is given, and whether sedation
is needed. Actual exposure to radiation is much shorter.
Your child will enter a special room and lie down on his or her back on a narrow
table. A pillow and sometimes a soft brace holds the head and neck in place to prevent
movement that would result in a blurry image.
If contrast solution is required, it may be given in the radiology area through
an intravenous line (IV) that will be placed in your child's hand or arm. Placing
the IV will feel like a quick pinprick, and the solution is painless as it goes into
the vein. Otherwise, your child may be given an oral contrast, which is a special
fluid to drink before the procedure. Some kids don't like the taste, but it can be
flavored to make it more appealing.
The technician will position your child, then step behind a wall or into an adjoining
room to operate the machine, viewing your child through a window. The technician will
speak to your child through an intercom. You'll be able to stay in the CAT scan room
with your child until the test begins and possibly during the test. If you leave the
room, you'll join the technician in the outer room or you might be asked to sit in
a waiting room. If you stay with the technician, you'll be asked to wear a lead apron
to protect certain parts of your body.
Sedation may be required if a child can't lie still for the scan, which is common
among infants and young kids. Sedation medicines are given through an IV line to help
keep patients comfortable during the CAT scan.
When the procedure begins, the table moves through the hole in the center of the
CAT scan machine. Older kids may be asked to hold their breath for a few seconds at
a time to prevent the images from being blurred.
What to Expect
Your child won't feel anything as the CAT scan is taken, but may hear whirring
and buzzing as the machine works. The room may feel cool due to air conditioning used
to maintain the equipment. Some kids may feel uncomfortable lying still for extended
After the scan is complete, your child will be asked to wait a few minutes so the
technician can review the quality of the images. If they're blurred, parts of the
CAT scan may need to be redone. If your child required sedation, it will take a little
while for the medicine to wear off.
Getting the Results
The CAT scan images will be looked at by a radiologist (a doctor specially trained
in reading and interpreting X-ray images). The radiologist will send a report to your
doctor, who will discuss the results with you and explain what they mean.
Results are usually ready in 1-2 days. If the CAT scan was done on an emergency
basis, the results can be made available quickly. In most cases, results can't be
given directly to the patient or family at the time of the test.
In general, CAT scans are very safe, although more radiation is required than in
a regular X-ray. Any exposure to radiation poses some risk to the body, but the amount
used in an individual CAT scan procedure isn't considered dangerous. It's important
to know that technicians use the minimum amount of radiation required to get the best
If your daughter is pregnant, there's a risk of harm to the developing baby, so
precautions must be taken.
Contrast solutions are generally safe, with a very low incidence of allergic reactions.
Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns about a possible allergy. Make sure
to tell your doctor about any medication, dye, and food allergies that your child
may have. Some patients who are at risk for allergic reaction to the contrast solution
may need medications like antihistamines or steroids to minimize the risk of adverse
If your child requires sedation, there's a slight chance of slowed breathing due
to the medications. If there are any problems with the sedation, the CAT scan staff
will treat them right away.
Helping Your Child
You can help your child prepare for a neck CAT scan by explaining the test in simple
terms before the procedure. You can describe the room and the equipment that will
be used, and reassure your child that you'll be close by. For older kids, be sure
to explain the importance of keeping still so the scan can be completed quickly and
parts of it don't have to be repeated.
If You Have Questions
If you have questions about why the neck CAT scan is needed, speak with your doctor.
You can also talk to the CAT scan technician before the procedure.