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A medical contrast medium (or contrast agent) is a substance used to enhance the contrast of structures or fluids within the body in medical imaging.[1] It is commonly used to enhance the visibility of blood vessels and the gastrointestinal tract.



Several types of contrast media are in use in medical imaging and they can roughly be classified based on the imaging modalities where they are used. Although other types exist, most common contrast agents work based on X-ray attenuation and magnetic resonance signal enhancement.


X-ray attenuation

Iodine and barium are the most common types of contrast medium for enhancing x-ray based imaging methods.

MR signal enhancing

This would include gadolinium for use in magnetic resonance imaging as a MRI contrast agent. In the 3+ oxidation state the metal has 7 unpaired f electrons. This causes water around the contrast agent to relax quickly, enhancing the quality of the MRI scan.


Microbubbles contrast agents are used to aid the sonographic, specifically echocardiograms, for the detection of a cardiac shunt. The bubbles are composed of tiny amounts of nitrogen or perfluorocarbons strengthened and supported by a protein, lipid, or polymer shell. The drop in density on the interface between the gas in the bubble and the surrounding liquid strongly scatters and reflects the ultrasound back to the probe. This process of backscattering gives the liquid with these bubbles a high signal, which can be seen in the resulting image.

Adverse effects

Although it is not very common, medical conditions can be caused by the administration of various contrast media. Reactions can range from minor to severe, sometimes resulting in death[2] with death being about 0.9 per 100,000 cases. risk factors for developing severe reactions include strong allergies, bronchial asthma, cardiac disease and beta-blocker use[3].

A common misconception that even exists among healthcare professionals is that an allergy to contrast media is related to an allergy to seafood (usually shellfish) because both share iodine in common, implicating iodine as a source [4][5]. Numerous studies have shown that although iodine is common in contrast media, iodine is not the cause of allergic reactions to contrast media and instead the more likely culprit are the inert ingredients and the patient's past history of having other strong allergic reactions [6]. One important distinction is that allergic effects are by definition immunoglobulin E related histamine storms and studies have shown that contrast media cause no such reaction in vivo [7] thereby refuting the possibility that contrast media or the iodine in it is likely to be an allergen. Although it may seem contradictory, the few rare cases of contrast medium mediated IgE are exceedingly rare compared to all adverse reactions and when they happen, are often because the patient already has multiple risk factors that suggest the patient has other allergy related problems [3].

See also


  1. ^ contrast agent at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
  2. ^ Caro, J. Jaime; Evelinda Trindade, Maurice McGregor (1991). "The Risks of Death and of Severe Nonfatal Reactions with High- vs Low Osmolarity Contrast Media: A Meta-analysis". American Journal of Roentgenology (American Roentgen Ray Society) 156: 825-832.  
  3. ^ a b Brockow, K.; et al. (11 Jan 2005). "Management of hypersensitivity reactions to iodinated contrast media". Allergy (European Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology) 60 (2): 150-158. doi:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2005.00745.x.  
  4. ^ Coakley, Fergus; David M. Panicek (October 1997). "Iodine Allergy: An Oyster Without a Pearl?". American Journal of Roentology (AJR) 169 (4): 951-952.  
  5. ^
  6. ^ {{Cite journal | last = Boehm | first = Ingrid | title = Seafood Allergy and Radiocontrast Media: Are Physicians Propagating a Myth? | journal = The American Journal of Medicine | volume = 121 | issue = 8 | pages = e19 | publisher = Elsevier | date = August 2008 | url = | doi = 10.1016/j.amjmed.2008.03.035
  7. ^ Carr, Denis H.; Archi C. Walker (1984). "Contrast Media Reactions: experimental evidence against the allergy theory". British Journal of Radiology (British Institute of Radiology) 57: 469-473. doi:10.1259/0007-1285-57-678-46.  

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