Health effects of prenatal radiation exposure

Am Fam Physician. 2010 Sep 1;82(5):488-93.


Pregnant women are at risk of exposure to nonionizing and ionizing radiation resulting from necessary medical procedures, workplace exposure, and diagnostic or therapeutic interventions before the pregnancy is known. Nonionizing radiation includes microwave, ultrasound, radio frequency, and electromagnetic waves. In utero exposure to nonionizing radiation is not associated with significant risks; therefore, ultrasonography is safe to perform during pregnancy. Ionizing radiation includes particles and electromagnetic radiation (e.g., gamma rays, x-rays). In utero exposure to ionizing radiation can be teratogenic, carcinogenic, or mutagenic. The effects are directly related to the level of exposure and stage of fetal development. The fetus is most susceptible to radiation during organogenesis (two to seven weeks after conception) and in the early fetal period (eight to 15 weeks after conception). Noncancer health effects have not been detected at any stage of gestation after exposure to ionizing radiation of less than 0.05 Gy (5 rad). Spontaneous abortion, growth restriction, and mental retardation may occur at higher exposure levels. The risk of cancer is increased regardless of the dose. When an exposure to ionizing radiation occurs, the total fetal radiation dose should be estimated and the mother counseled about the potential risks so that she can make informed decisions about her pregnancy management.

MeSH terms

  • Counseling
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Female
  • Fetus / embryology
  • Fetus / radiation effects*
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced
  • Occupational Exposure / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Occupational Exposure / prevention & control
  • Organogenesis
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Radiation
  • Radiation Dosage*
  • Radiation, Ionizing
  • Radiation, Nonionizing