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Radiation in Healthcare: Nuclear Medicine

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Radiation in Healthcare: Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine uses radioactive material inside the body to see how organs or tissues are functioning (for diagnosis) or to target and destroy damaged or diseased organs or tissues (for treatment).

Although we all are exposed to ionizing radiation every day from the natural environment, added exposures like those from nuclear medicine procedures can slightly increase the risk of developing cancer later in life.

Talk to your healthcare provider to decide on the best procedure for your health needs and discuss any concerns you have.

What You Should Know

Your healthcare provider may recommend a nuclear medicine procedure to diagnose or treat a health problem.

When It’s Used for Diagnosis

Nuclear medicine can show how the organs or tissues are functioning. For most diagnostic procedures, a tracer, which contains the radioactive material, is injected, swallowed, or inhaled. Then the healthcare provider or radiologist (a healthcare professional with special training to use radiation in healthcare) uses a radiation detector to see how much of the tracer is absorbed or how it reacts in the organ or tissue. This will give the provider information about how well it is functioning.

Common uses of nuclear medicine for diagnosis include:

  • Scans of the heart, lung, kidneys, gallbladder, and thyroid

In a type of nuclear medicine called positron emission tomography (PET), the tracer is used to show the natural activity of cells, providing more detailed information on how organs are working and if there is damage to the cells. PET scans are often combined with computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which provide three-dimensional images of the organs.

Common uses of PET scans include:

  • Diagnosing heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain disorders

  • Getting detailed information about cancerous tumors to decide the best treatment option

When it’s used for treatment

When used in treatment, the tracer targets a harmful organ or tissue and radioactivity damages or stops the growth of its cells.

Two common uses of nuclear medicine for treatment include radioactive iodine therapy and brachytherapy (a form of radiation treatment where a sealed radiation source is placed inside or next to the area requiring treatment).

What To Expect

Find information on special considerations for pregnant women and children.

Before the procedure

  • You will receive a tracer either through an injection, inhalation (breathing it in), or through a pill or substance to swallow.

  • You may need to wait a certain amount of time for the tracer to travel through your body to the tissue or organ being diagnosed or treated.

During the procedure

  • You may be asked to lie down on a table or to walk on a treadmill.

  • A camera that detects radiation will be placed over your body to collect information on how the tracer is acting in an organ or tissue.

After the procedure

  • The radiologist and your healthcare provider use this information to see how an organ or tissue is functioning.

  • The radioactive material from the tracer will pass out of your body in a few hours to a few days, depending on the type of tracer and test you receive.


When You Go Home

Right after your procedure, your body is very slightly radioactive (giving off radiation) but this wears off with time and is not directly harmful to others. Your healthcare provider may give you special instructions to help reduce any small amounts of radiation you give off from exposing others such as washing your hands frequently. Drinking a lot of water may help the radioactive material leave your body quicker.

  • Before you leave, ask your healthcare provider if there are steps you should take to protect others or if you have any concerns or questions about information you were given.

  • Talk to your healthcare provider if you are currently breastfeeding.

Photo of a machine used for a thyroid scan


The ionizing radiation dose for these procedures is typically higher than the dose received from a common x-ray procedure. There are always some possible risks from exposure to ionizing radiation in healthcare, but these procedures should be used when the health benefits outweigh these risks.

Benefits and Risks of Nuclear Medicine


  • Provides information on how organs, tissues, and cells are working. (Other common imaging procedures only show the structures.)

  • Can be used also in targeted treatments to kill or damage harmful or cancerous cells, reduce the size of tumors, or reduce pain.


  • Radiation doses are usually higher than in common imaging like x-rays. This means these procedures are slightly more likely to increase the possibility you may get cancer later in life.

  • Some nuclear medicine procedures are longer and use more radiation than others. These could cause skin reddening and hair loss.

  • You may give off small amounts of radiation right after your procedure and need to take steps to protect others from exposure.

About CCH Radiology

The Radiology Department at Campbell County Memorial Hospital and the Outpatient Imaging Center in the Stocktrail Building provides nuclear medicine services to patients in Gillette, Wyoming.

Nuclear medicine uses radioactive material inside the body to see how organs or tissues are functioning (for diagnosis) or to target and destroy damaged or diseased organs or tissues (for treatment). Staff at CCH Radiology are certified in their respective specialties, and most have multiple certifications for different specialties. To learn more about the services available at Campbell County Health Radiology, click here.



  • Category: Radiology