Radiation and pregnancy
Radiation is a kind of energy. It travels as rays or particles in the air. Radiation can attach itself to materials like dust, powder or liquid. These materials can become radioactive, which means that they give off radiation.
You are exposed to (come in contact with) small amounts of radiation nearly every day. This radiation comes from natural sources (like sun rays) and man-made sources (like microwave ovens and medical X-rays). These kinds of radiation don’t cause serious harm. However, radiation emergencies, like a nuclear power plant accident, may expose you to larger, more dangerous amounts of radiation. This may cause harm to you and your baby.
If you think you've been exposed to large amounts of radiation, tell your health care provider immediately.
How can you protect yourself and your baby from radiation during pregnancy?
Tell any health care provider you see, including your dentist, that you’re pregnant before you get an X-ray or other tests that use radiation, like computed tomography (also called CT or CAT scan). CT scans use special X-ray equipment and powerful computers to make pictures of the inside of your body. Most X-rays are safe to get during pregnancy. But if you’re pregnant and need an X-ray or a CT scan of your belly, your provider may want to wait until your baby’s born, modify the test to reduce the amount of radiation or use another test that doesn't use radiation, like ultrasound. You and your provider can decide what treatment is best for you.
If you work with radiation at your job, talk to your boss. Tell him that you’re pregnant. You may be able to change job responsibilities to help keep you and your baby safe during pregnancy.
If you've been in a radiation emergency with possible exposure to large amounts of radiation, follow these guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (also called CDC):
- Get inside. Get to the middle of a building or a basement, away from doors and windows. Bring pets inside.
- Stay inside. Close and lock windows and doors. Take a shower or wipe any exposed parts of your body with a damp cloth. Drink bottled water and eat food in sealed containers.
- Stay tuned. Use radios, TVs, computers and mobile devices to get current information from officials in your area.
If you think you’ve been exposed to large amounts of radiation, tell your health care provider immediately.
How does radiation affect you and your baby during pregnancy?
During pregnancy, your body protects your baby from most radiation that you’re exposed to every day. Most babies born to moms who come in contact with low amounts of radiation during pregnancy aren’t at increased risk for birth defects. A birth defect is a health condition that a baby has at birth. Birth defects change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. They can cause problems in overall health, in how the body develops, or in how the body works.
If you swallow or breathe in radioactive material during pregnancy, it can get into your bloodstream and pass through the umbilical cord to your baby. It also can build up in areas of your body that are close to your uterus (womb), such as your bladder. The effect on your baby depends on the amount of radiation your body takes in, the kind of radiation it is, and the length of time you’re in contact with it. Your baby is most sensitive to radiation between 2 and 18 weeks of pregnancy. Exposure to radiation during pregnancy can:
- Slow your baby’s growth
- Cause birth defects
- Affect your baby’s brain development
- Cause cancer in your baby
- Cause miscarriage. This is the death of a baby in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Exposure to large amounts of radiation, equal to having more than 500 chest X-rays at one time, is not common. It did happen to women in Japan after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If you do come in contact with large amounts of radiation, you may not feel sick, but the radiation may cause serious problems in your baby
Exposure to extremely large amounts of radiation, equal to having more than 5,000 chest X-rays at one time, also is not common. It did happen to women in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the Ukraine in 1986. If you do come in contact with extremely large amounts of radiation, you may show signs of radiation sickness, including:
- Vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools
- Fatigue (being really tired)
- Hair loss
Contact your health care provider immediately if you think you’ve been exposed to large amounts of radiation.
Can radiation from the 2011 nuclear power plant accident in Japan affect you now in the United States?
Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japan in 2011, very small amounts of radiation have been found in the United States. The CDC says that it’s not enough radiation to cause health problems in this country, so you don’t need to be treated for exposure.
Last reviewed December 2014
Frequently Asked Questions
Is air travel safe during pregnancy?
If your pregnancy is healthy, it’s usually safe to travel by plane. Follow these tips when traveling by air:
- Ask your airline if they have a cut-off time for traveling during pregnancy. You can fly on most airlines up to 36 weeks of pregnancy. But if you’re flying out of the country, the cut-off time may be earlier.
- If you’ve had morning sickness during pregnancy, ask your provider if you can take medicine to help with nausea.
- Book an aisle seat so you don't have to climb over other passengers when you need to get up to use the restroom or walk around. Try sitting towards the front of the plane where the ride feels smoother.
- Drink plenty of water. Don’t drink carbonated drinks, such as soda. And don’t eat foods, such as beans, that may cause gas.Gas in your belly can expand at high altitudes and make you feel uncomfortable.
- Fasten your seat belt when you’re in your seat. This can help keep you from getting hurt in case of turbulence. Turbulence happens when the air around a flying plane causes a bumpy ride.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Flex your ankles during the flight, and take a walk when it's safe to leave your seat. Doing these things can help your blood flow and lower your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot inside a vein. Sitting for long stretches of time during any kind of travel raises your chances of having DVT. Ask your health care provider if you should wear support stockings during your flight. They may help prevent DVT. But if you have diabetes or problems with blood circulation, you probably shouldn’t wear them.
- Tell the flight attendant if you feel sick or very uncomfortable during your flight. Contact your health care provider as soon as you can.
Is it safe to get or have a tattoo during pregnancy?
It's best to wait until after having your baby to get one. Here's why: Hepatitis B, a dangerous liver infection, and HIV/AIDS are two of many diseases that can be passed along through bodily fluids. This means you can catch these diseases if you get a tattoo from someone who uses a dirty needle. And you can pass these diseases along to your baby during pregnancy.
We don't know how tattoo dyes and inks affect a developing baby. Small amounts of chemicals that might be harmless to an adult can have a much bigger impact on a growing baby.
Most healthcare providers will give an epidural to a woman with a tattoo on her lower back. But they may decide not to if the tattoo is recent and fresh. If you have a tattoo on your back and are considering getting an epidural for pain relief during childbirth, find out what the hospital's policy is before you're admitted.
Is it safe to get spa treatments during pregnancy?
Some spa treatments are safe. Others may be more painful than usual. And some - like mud baths - are a bad idea while you're pregnant.
Any spa treatments that raise your body temperature (like mud baths, hot wax and seaweed wraps) are almost always unsafe during pregnancy. Steam rooms, hot tubs, and saunas also raise your body temperature. They can make you dehydrated and overheated. This can be dangerous for you and your baby. Avoid these treatments while you're pregnant.
Be careful with skin treatments like facials and body scrubs. During pregnancy, your skin changes a lot and may be extra sensitive. Before you cover your whole body with a product, test it on a small area of skin to be sure it doesn't irritate.
Getting your eyebrows done and having your bikini line waxed are usually safe during pregnancy, but they may feel more painful to your sensitive skin.