Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

Positron emission tomography (PET) is a test that uses a special type of camera and a tracer (radioactive chemical) to look at organs in the body.

During the test, the tracer liquid is put into a vein (intravenous, or IV) in your arm. The tracer moves through your body, where much of it collects in the specific organ or tissue. The tracer gives off tiny positively charged particles (positrons). The camera records the positrons and turns the recording into pictures on a computer.

PET scan pictures do not show as much detail as computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because the pictures show only the location of the tracer. The PET picture may be matched with those from a CT scan to get more detailed information about where the tracer is located.

A PET scan is often used to find cancer, to check blood flow, or to see how organs are working.

See pictures of a PET scannerand PET scans of the brain.

Why It Is Done

A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is done to:

How To Prepare

Stop taking medicines and herbal remedies 24 hours before you have this test. If you take insulin to control diabetes, you may need to take less than your normal dose. Talk with your doctor about how much insulin you should take.

Do not smoke or drink caffeine or alcohol for 24 hours before this test.

Do not eat or drink for 8 hours before this test.

Tell your doctor if you are or might be pregnant or if you are breast-feeding.

Tell your doctor if you have a fear of enclosed spaces or have ever had a panic attack.

You may be asked to sign a consent form for this test. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done or what the results mean.



Positron emission tomography (PET) is a test that uses a special type of camera and a tracer (radioactive chemical) to look at organs in the body.

The radiologist may discuss preliminary results of the PET scan with you right after the test. Complete results are usually available in 1 to 2 days.

What Affects the Test

Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:

  • Being pregnant. A PET scan is not usually done during pregnancy because the radiation could harm the unborn baby (fetus).
  • Using caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol in the past 24 hours.
  • Not being able to lie still for the test.
  • Being too anxious.
  • Using sedatives.
  • Taking medicines, such as insulin, that change your metabolism.
What To Think About
  • The radioactive tracer may be passed to a baby through breast milk. Talk to your doctor if you are breast-feeding and need to have a PET scan.
  • PET scans are expensive and not yet widely available.
  • A CT scan and PET scan may be done at the same time.
  • Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging is a method that may be used to see whether a person with chest pain is at high risk for a heart attack. SPECT imaging also may be done with cardiac stress testing to check for coronary artery disease (CAD) or to choose the best treatment for it. 1
  • You may not be able to have a PET scan if you have recently had surgery, a biopsy, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

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