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What is a PET Scan?

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Nuclear medicine has come a long way. It involves observation and study of living tissue with the help of radioactive material. This helps in quick diagnosis and treatment of patients. There are different types of procedures that help in carrying out the diagnosis. One such procedure is called as PET Scan. Let us have a detailed look about PET scan and its advantages.

What is a PET Scan?

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan is a medical imaging procedure. It helps in giving detailed images of all that is happening at the molecular and cellular level. Other diagnostic procedures like an X ray, CT scans, etc. help in giving anatomical images of the body. But, a PET scan gives a detailed report of all the biological processes occurring within the body.

It is usually carried out when the doctor wants to know about the functioning of tissues and organs. In order to carry out a PET scan, one is injected with a radioactive material. This radioactive material reaches the targeted organ or tissue and helps give clear images of all the chemical activity occurring within the organ or tissue. Any disease or malfunction will appear as a bright spot on the PET scan.

What is a PET Scan Used to Diagnose?

A PET scan is used for diagnosis  and pathology of tissues and organs. Some of the uses include:

  • It is mostly used in the diagnosis of cancers and tumors.
  • It also helps in measurement of blood flow within the body, the amount of oxygen used, glucose metabolism, etc.
  • Detection of heart problems like coronary artery disease, etc.
  • Diagnosis of brain disorders like tumors, seizures, etc.
  • Evaluation of nervous system disorders

A PET scan also helps in:

  • Diagnosing and staging of various tumors and cancers
  • Finding the exact location of cancer and to evaluate its spread to different parts
  • Helping in planning the line of treatment based on the molecular properties
  • Evaluation of the specific treatment and the patient’s response to the treatment given.

What is the PET Scan Procedure?

PET scan usually carried out as an outpatient procedure. As it involves radioactive material, one will be given detailed instructions before the procedure.

Before the Procedure

One may be asked not to eat or drink anything for at least four hours before the procedure. This instruction is given in case of certain scans of some body parts. One should let the healthcare provider know about any medications you take or medical conditions you are suffering from like allergies. Pregnant women should inform about their condition to the doctor as a PET scan can be harmful to the growing fetus. Also, breastfeeding women should declare this fact to the doctor beforehand. A consent form will be given before the procedure for the patient to sign. Make sure you read it carefully and clear any doubts with the doctor beforehand.

During the Procedure

Once the procedure is fixed, the patient will be asked to change into a gown. Remove any jewelry as it may interfere with the scan. The nurse will inject the radioactive material into the vein through an intravenous injection. In some cases, one may be asked to inhale or swallow the substance depending on the tissue or organ to be studied.

It takes about 30 to 90 minutes for the radioactive substance to reach the target area. During this time, one is asked to lie still on a table. Avoid talking and moving unnecessarily. It may cause improper distribution of the substance injected.

After a specific time, one will be made to lie down on the PET scan scanner table. The scanning will begin and take about 30 to 60 minutes.

After the Procedure

There is no specific care required after a PET scan. One can get back to their normal activities after the scan. One can even drive back home. All one needs to do is drink plenty of water to flush out the radioactive substance from the body.

Risk of PET Scan

There is no risk involved with a PET scan. Although one is injected with a radioactive material, the concentration is too low to cause any harm. However, it may prove risky for the fetus as well as infants.


A radiologist who is an expert in PET scan imaging will interpret the images and send a report to the doctor. The different levels of colors and brightness on the images will help the radiologist understand the functioning and the level of disease in the tissue and organs.

A PET scan is very useful in detection of cancers and diseases of organs that are difficult to observe by other methods like the brain. It is a safe procedure and the risk due to exposure to radiation is next to nil. For any queries, speak to your doctor before you undergo a PET scan.

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Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: March 12, 2015

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