When considering the investigation of the patient with possible pulmonary embolism, one needs to balance the likelihood of disease and the diagnostic utility of the test against the risks associated with the investigation. Both computed tomography pulmonary angiography (CTPA) and the ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan involve exposure to ionizing radiation. The effect of low-level ionizing radiation remains an issue of some controversy. CTPA delivers a greater effective dose and, in particular, greater doses to breast tissue, than the V/Q scan (typically 10-70 mGy for CTPA vs <1.5 mGy for V/Q to breast). Since breast tissue is particularly radiosensitive in younger women, the V/Q study has an advantage over CTPA in this group. In the pregnant patient, fetal exposure has been raised as a concern. In fact, there is typically only low fetal exposure from either study (<1 mGy). The CTPA does deliver less fetal exposure, particularly in the first trimester, but the difference between CTPA and V/Q scan is small when compared with the difference in dose to maternal breast from the 2 investigations. The "as low as reasonably achievable" (ie, ALARA) principle favors the use of V/Q scans in young women, assuming the diagnostic power of the 2 tests is comparable. CTPA requires a contrast injection that can cause adverse reactions in a small number of patients. No significant risk, however, has been demonstrated with the radiopharmaceuticals involved in V/Q scans.
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