A breast ultrasound is a type of imaging test that your doctor may use to help diagnose the type and cause of a lump or other change in your breast tissue or nipple.

A breast ultrasound is a type of imaging test that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce detailed images of the inside of your breast. A doctor may order this test to check for tumors or other breast abnormalities.

If you have breast cancer, early diagnosis and treatment will help improve your outlook. An ultrasound is often part of the diagnostic process.

Unlike X-rays and CT scans, ultrasounds don’t use radiation and are considered safe during pregnancy.

A breast ultrasound is a diagnostic imaging test that uses sound waves to create images of breast tissue. This test can see certain types of cysts and tumors, such as fluid-filled cysts, that may not show up as well on a mammogram.

In addition to a standard breast ultrasound, there are special types that may be performed, including:

  • Automated breast ultrasound (ABUS): Also called an automated whole-breast ultrasound (AWBUS), this type of ultrasound uses a larger transducer to create a 3-D ultrasound image of your entire breast.
  • Contrast-enhanced breast ultrasound (CEBUS): In CEUS, a healthcare professional injects or infuses a contrast agent into one of your veins. This substance changes how sound waves move through your body to create clearer ultrasound images.

A breast ultrasound is often performed as a follow-up to a mammogram, a type of X-ray used to screen for breast cancer, to help your doctor determine whether it’s a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor.

A doctor may order a breast ultrasound if a physical exam or mammogram reveals a breast abnormality, such as:

A breast ultrasound may also be used to check for leaks or other problems with breast implants.

Typically, a sonographer, a healthcare professional with ultrasound certification, will conduct your breast ultrasound.

The procedure is straightforward:

  1. First, the sonographer will ask you to undress from the waist up and lie on your back on an ultrasound table.
  2. They’ll apply a clear gel to your breast. This conductive gel helps the ultrasound waves travel through your skin.
  3. They’ll move the transducer, which is like a hand-held wand, over your breast. They may even use an ABUS machine with a larger transducer, which they’ll lower over your breast.

If the sonographer finds something suspicious, they’ll take multiple pictures of the area.

The procedure may take up to 30 minutes. If the sonographer uses an ABUS machine, the procedure may take as little as 5 minutes to complete.

You don’t need to avoid eating or drinking before a breast ultrasound.

You will be asked to:

  • avoid applying powders, lotions, or cosmetics to your breast before the ultrasound. These products may interfere with the accuracy of the test
  • avoid wearing jewelry to your appointment or make sure that you can easily remove it if asked
  • wear a top that you can easily remove during your ultrasound appointment
  • to undress from the waist up

A radiologist will examine the images from your breast ultrasound and send the results to your primary care doctor or OB-GYN if you have one. Depending on the purpose of your breast ultrasound, you may get the results shortly after your ultrasound.

The images that a breast ultrasound produces are in black and white. Cysts, tumors, and growths will appear as dark areas on the scan. However, a dark spot on your ultrasound doesn’t mean that you have breast cancer. Most breast lumps are noncancerous or benign.

When to expect your results

Breast ultrasound results are typically available within several days. In some cases, they may be available on the same day.

How quickly you receive the results will depend on several factors, such as:

  • a past history of breast cancer
  • whether your radiologist needs to collect more information or compare the ultrasound images with past test results to interpret them
  • the methods the ultrasound facility uses to process and deliver results

A breast ultrasound doesn’t pose any risks and has many benefits.

Sometimes a breast ultrasound may be used instead of a mammogram to screen for breast cancer, if you:

  • are pregnant
  • are younger than 25 years old
  • have dense breast tissue
  • don’t have access to mammography in your area

If the results of an ultrasound exam are abnormal, your doctor may order an MRI. An MRI can create images of your breast with greater detail.

If your doctor finds a solid tumor in your breast, neither an ultrasound nor an MRI will identify if a tumor is malignant or cancerous.

To learn if the tumor is cancerous, your doctor will perform a biopsy to remove a sample of breast tissue for testing.

They may use an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy to collect the sample. During this procedure, they’ll use a breast ultrasound to guide them while removing a sample of tissue with a needle. Then they’ll send the tissue to a laboratory for analysis.

While most breast biopsies, around 4 out of 5, are negative, it’s important to speak with your doctor to learn more about your test results and next steps.

Can you see breast cancer in an ultrasound?

A breast ultrasound is good for determining if a cyst is solid or fluid-filled, but a mammogram is better at identifying early signs of breast cancer like microcalcifications. Ultrasounds may also be beneficial if you have dense breast tissue, are younger than 25 years old, or are pregnant.

Is it common to have an ultrasound after a mammogram?

According to the American Cancer Society, fewer than 1 in 10 people need follow-up testing following a mammogram.

Is a breast ultrasound as good as a mammogram?

A breast ultrasound is better for determining if a breast cyst is solid or fluid-filled. Ultrasounds may also be recommended if you have dense breast tissue, are pregnant, or are younger than 25 years old. A mammogram is still better at discovering early signs of breast cancer and is still the preferred method of screening for breast cancer.

Your doctor may order a breast ultrasound if they find a lump that looks like a tumor during a mammogram or to determine if a cyst is solid or fluid-filled.

They may also order follow-up imaging tests and a biopsy to collect a sample of tissue for testing. A biopsy will help your doctor learn whether the lump is cancerous. Most breast lumps are benign.

If you have a benign cyst or tumor in your breast, your doctor can help you weigh the benefits and risks of having it drained or removed.

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