Radiocontrast agents are a type of medical contrast medium used to improve the visibility of internal bodily structures in X-ray based imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) and radiography (commonly known as X-ray imaging). Radiocontrast agents are typically iodine or barium compounds.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) functions through different principles and thus utilizes different contrast agents. These compounds work by altering the magnetic properties of nearby hydrogen nuclei.
Types and uses 
Radiocontrast agents used in X-ray examinations can be grouped based on its use.
Iodinated (intravascular) 
Iodine-based contrast media are usually classified as ionic or non-ionic. Both types are used most commonly in radiology due to their relatively harmless interaction with the body and its solubility. Contrast media are primarily used to visualize vessels and changes in tissues on radiography and CT. Contrast media can also be used for tests of the urinary tract, uterus and fallopian tubes. It may cause the patient to feel as if he or she has urinated on him- or herself. It also puts a metallic taste in the mouth of the patient.
Modern intravenous contrast agents are typically based on iodine. This may be bound either in an organic (non-ionic) compound or an ionic compound. Ionic agents were developed first and are still in widespread use depending on the requirements but may result in additional complications. Organic agents which covalently bind the iodine have fewer side effects as they do not dissociate into component molecules. Many of the side effects are due to the hyperosmolar solution being injected. i.e. they deliver more iodine atoms per molecule. The more iodine, the more "dense" the X-ray effect.
There are many different molecules. Some examples of organic iodine molecules are iohexol, iodixanol and ioversol. Iodine based contrast media are water soluble. These contrast agents are sold as clear colorless water solutions, the concentration is usually expressed as mg I/ml. Modern iodinated contrast agents can be used almost anywhere in the body. Most often they are used intravenously, but for various purposes they can also be used intraarterially, intrathecally (as in diskography of the spine) and intraabdominally – just about any body cavity or potential space.
Despite past assumptions of harmlessness, a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that "Iodinated contrast media exposure is associated with subsequent development of incident hyperthyroidism and incident overt hypothyroidism." This is presumably an effect specifically of ionic compounds (which dissociate to produce free, biologically active iodide ions) rather than non-ionic compounds (in which iodine remains covalently bound and hence biologically unavailable).
Iodine contrast agents are used for the following:
- Angiography (arterial investigations)
- Venography (venous investigations)
- VCUG (voiding cystourethrography)
- HSG (hysterosalpinogram)
- IVU (intravenous urography)
Ionic contrast media typically, but not always, have higher osmolality and more side-effects.
|Ionic||Diatrizoate (Hypaque 50)||Monomer||300 mgI/ml||1550||High|
|Ionic||Metrizoate (Isopaque 370)||Monomer||370 mgI/ml||2100||High|
|Ionic||Ioxaglate (Hexabrix)||Dimer||320 mgI/ml||580||Low|
Non-ionic contrast media have lower osmolality and tend to have fewer side-effects.
|Non-ionic||Iopamidol (Isovue 370)||Monomer||370 mgI/ml||796||Low|
|Non-ionic||Iohexol (Omnipaque 350)||Monomer||350 mgI/ml||884||Low|
|Non-ionic||Ioxilan (Oxilan 350)||Monomer||350 mgI/ml||695||Low|
|Non-ionic||Iopromide (Ultravist 370)||Monomer||370 mgI/ml||774||Low|
|Non-ionic||Iodixanol (Visipaque 320)||Dimer||320 mgI/ml||290||Low|
Barium (gastro-intestinal) 
Barium sulfate is mainly used in the imaging of the digestive system. The substance exists as a water insoluble white powder that is made into a slurry with water and administered directly into the gastrointestinal tract.
- Barium enema (large bowel investigation) and DCBE (double contrast barium enema)
- Barium swallow (oesophagael investigation)
- Barium meal (stomach investigation) and double contrast barium meal
- Barium follow through (stomach and small bowel investigation)
- CT pneumocolon / virtual colonoscopy
Barium sulfate, an insoluble white powder is typically used for enhancing contrast in the GI tract. Depending on how it is to be administered the compound is mixed with water, thickeners, de-clumping agents, and flavourings to make the contrast agent. As the barium sulfate doesn't dissolve, this type of contrast agent is an opaque white mixture. It is only used in the digestive tract; it is usually swallowed or administered as an enema. After the examination, it leaves the body with the feces.
As in the picture on the right where both air and barium are used together (hence the term "double-contrast" barium enema) air can be used as a contrast material because it is less radio-opaque than the tissues it is defining. In the picture it highlights the interior of the colon. An example of a technique using purely air for the contrast medium is an air arthrogram where the injection of air into a joint cavity allows the cartilage covering the ends of the bones to be visualised.
Carbon Dioxide 
Carbon dioxide also has a role in angiography. It is low-risk as it is a natural product with no risk of allergic potential. However, it can be used only below the diaphragm as there is a risk of embolism in neurovascular procedures. It must be used carefully to avoid contamination with room air when injected. It is a negative contrast agent in that it displaces blood when injected intravascularly.
Adverse effects 
Modern iodinated contrast agents are generally well tolerated. The major side effects of radiocontrast are anaphylactoid reactions and contrast-induced nephropathy.
Anaphylactoid reactions 
Anaphylactoid reactions occur rarely, but can occur in response to injected as well as oral and rectal contrast and even retrograde pyelography. They are similar in presentation to anaphylactic reactions, but are not caused by an IgE-mediated immune response. Patients with a history of contrast reactions, however, are at increased risk of anaphylactoid reactions. Pretreatment with corticosteroids has been shown to decrease the incidence of adverse reactions.
Anaphylactoid reactions range from urticaria and itching, to bronchospasm and facial and laryngeal edema. For simple cases of urticaria and itching, Benadryl (diphenhydramine) oral or IV is appropriate. For more severe reactions, including bronchospasm and facial or neck edema, albuterol inhaler, or subcutaneous or IV epinephrine, plus diphenhydramine may be needed. If respiration is compromised, an airway must be established prior to medical management.
Contribution of seafood and other allergies 
There are no true allergies against iodine. Suspicion of seafood "allergy" is not a sufficient contraindication to the use of iodinated contrast material. While iodine levels in seafood are higher than in non-seafood items, the consumption of the latter exceeds that of the former by far and there is no evidence that the iodine content of seafood is related to reactions to seafood. Available data suggest that seafood allergy increases the risk of a contrast-mediated reaction by approximately the same amount as allergies to fruits or those with asthma. In other words, over 85% of patients with seafood allergies will not have an adverse reaction to iodinated contrast. Finally, there is no evidence that adverse skin reactions to iodine-containing topical antiseptics (e.g., povidone-iodine) are of any specific relevance to administration of I.V. contrast material.
Contrast-induced nephropathy 
Drug interactions 
It has been recommended that metformin, an oral antidiabetic agent, be stopped for 48 hours following the intravascular administration of contrast media and that the use of metformin not be resumed until renal function has been shown to be normal. The reasoning is that if the contrast medium causes kidney failure (as happens rarely) and the person continues to take metformin (which is normally excreted by the kidneys), there may be a toxic accumulation of metformin, increasing the risk of lactic acidosis, a dangerous complication.
However, guidelines published by the Royal College of Radiologists suggest this is not as important for patients who receive less than 100 ml of contrast media and have normal renal function. If renal impairment is found before administration of the contrast, metformin should be stopped 48 hours before and after the procedure.
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See also