Low-Dose CT Lung Scans Can Save Lives

By Emily Menendez - Last Updated: November 15, 2022

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States. Smoking is estimated to cause 87% of lung cancer deaths each year, and secondhand smoke is responsible for an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year in nonsmokers. The American Lung Association notes that if lung cancer is detected before it spreads, the likelihood of surviving 5 years or more with lung cancer is 60%. Computerized tomography (CT) lung cancer scans can help catch lung cancer early when it is easily treatable.

What is a Low-Dose CT Scan?

A low-dose CT scan is a simple and non-invasive procedure that uses a CT scan machine to take multiple x-ray images of your lungs that are then combined into a single 3-dimensional picture; the procedure takes less than a minute. A CT scan can detect early lung cancers that are too small to be detected by regular x-rays. According to the Swedish Cancer Institute, regular x-rays can detect lung abnormalities the size of a dime, while low-dose CT scans can detect abnormalities that are the size of a grain of rice.

Who Can Get Low-Dose CT Scans?

Low-dose CT scans are recommended for adults who have no symptoms of lung cancer but are at high risk. According to the CDC, low-dose CT scans are recommended for those who:

  • Have a 20 pack-year or more smoking history, and
  • Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
  • Are between 50 and 80 years old.

The CDC also recommends that yearly lung cancer screenings should be stopped when the patient being screened:

  • Turns 81 years old, or
  • Has not smoked in 15 or more years, or
  • Develops a health problem that makes them unwilling or unable to have surgery if lung cancer is found.

Risks of Low-Dose CT Scans

As with any cancer screening test, low-dose CT scans may have false positive results or can lead to overdiagnosis. False positive results can occur when a patient receives test results that state cancer is present even when there is none. Overdiagnosis occurs when cancer is detected, but the cancer is so small that it may never cause issues for the patient.  This could result in a patient receiving unnecessary extra treatment that, in turn, would cause an emotional and physical toll greater than that from the diagnosed cancer.

As with regular x-rays, low-dose CT scans also expose patients to radiation. A low-dose CT scan uses about 5 times less radiation than a traditional CT scan, but its radiation exposure is about 15 times more than a traditional x-ray. However, the benefits of low-dose CT screening greatly outweigh the risks of not receiving a screening at all.