What Is a Gallium Scan?
A gallium scan is a diagnostic test that looks for infection, inflammation, and tumors. Gallium is a radioactive metal. The scan is generally performed in the nuclear medicine department of a hospital.
The gallium is mixed into a solution. It’s injected into your arm and moves through your blood, collecting in your organs and bones. Your body will then be scanned to see where and how the gallium has accumulated in your body.
Gallium is radioactive, but the risk of radiation exposure from this procedure is lower than from an X-ray or CT scan. Aside from the injection, the test is painless and requires very little preparation. However, the scan takes place several hours after the gallium injection, so schedule your procedure accordingly.
Purpose of a Gallium Scan
Your doctor may order a gallium scan if you have unexplained pains or fever, or if cancer is suspected. The scan is also used as a follow-up test for patients who have been diagnosed or treated for cancer. Additionally, it can be used to inspect the lungs.
Purpose of a Gallium Scan of the Lungs
In a gallium scan of the lungs, your lungs should look normal in size and texture and should have collected very little gallium.
Abnormal results could indicate:
- sarcoidosis, which occurs when chronic inflammatory cells form nodules on multiple organs
- a respiratory infection
- a tumor in the lung
- scleroderma of the lung, which is an autoimmune disease that damages vital organs
- a pulmonary embolus, which is an arterial blockage
- primary pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries of your heart
This test isn’t foolproof. It’s important to note that not all cancers or small defects will show up in the gallium scan.
Preparation for a Gallium Scan
There’s no need to fast. No additional medications are required for this test except for gallium. In some cases, you may need to use a laxative or an enema to clear your bowels before the scan. This will prevent stool from interfering with the test results.
Notify your doctor if you’re pregnant, think you may be pregnant, or you’re nursing. Tests involving radiation are not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing and should not be performed on very young children if an alternative test is available.
How a Gallium Scan Works
This is an outpatient procedure, which means that you can go home on the day of the test.
When you arrive at the hospital, a technician will inject a gallium solution into a vein in your arm. You may feel a sharp prick and the site may be tender for a few minutes.
After the injection, you’ll be able to leave the hospital as the gallium begins moving through your bloodstream, collecting in your bones and organs. You’ll be asked to return to the hospital at a specific time for the scan, usually between six and 48 hours after you receive the injection.
When you return, you’ll change into a hospital gown, remove all jewelry and other metal, and lie on your back on a firm table. A scanner will slowly move around your body while a special camera detects where the gallium has collected in your body. The camera’s images can be viewed on a monitor.
The scanning process takes between 30 and 60 minutes. It’s important to remain completely still during the scan. The scanner doesn’t touch you directly, and the procedure is painless.
Some people find the hard table uncomfortable and have trouble remaining still. If you think you’ll have trouble lying still, tell your doctor before the test. The doctor may give you a sedative or antianxiety medication to help.
In some instances, the scan may be repeated over the course of several days. In this case, you’ll not need to have additional gallium injections.
Interpreting Your Results
A radiologist will review your scans and send a report to your doctor. Normally, the gallium will collect in your:
- breast tissue
- large bowel
Cancer cells and other compromised tissues take up gallium more readily than healthy tissues. Gallium that collects in other sites could be a sign of an infection, inflammation, or a tumor.
Is a Gallium Scan Dangerous?
There’s a small risk of complications from radiation exposure, but it’s less than the risk involved with X-rays or CT scans. The risk of complications increases if you have many gallium scans over time.
A trace amount of gallium may remain in your tissues for a few weeks, but your body will eliminate the gallium naturally.