Iodinated contrast media are contrast agents that contain iodine atoms used for x-ray-based imaging modalities such as computed tomography (CT), although they are also used in fluoroscopy, angiography and venography, and even occasionally, plain radiography. Although the intravenous route of administration is most common, they are also administered by many other routes, including gastrointestinal (oral, rectal), cystourethral, vaginal, intraosseous, etc.
The ability to distinguish between tissues of different x-ray attenuation (image contrast) depends upon two types of interactions between photons and matter: Compton scattering and photoelectric absorption. Both these interactions depend upon physical density, but the latter also depends upon atomic number of the matter. As iodine has a high atomic number, 53, compared to most tissues in the body, the administration of iodinated material produces image contrast due to differential photoelectric absorption.
Iodine has a particular advantage as a contrast agent because the k-shell binding energy (k-edge) is 33.2 keV, similar to the average energy of x-rays used in diagnostic radiography 1. When the incident x-ray energy is closer to the k-edge of the atom it encounters, photoelectric absorption is more likely to occur.
Differences in photoelectric absorption across different x-ray energies is harnessed in dual-energy CT, in which patients are scanned with two different x-ray spectra. Material decomposition techniques allows the creation of virtual images in which iodine is preferentially increased in intensity (iodine map) or removed altogether (virtual non-contrast), which can hold additional diagnostic value.
- documented previous severe reaction to iodinated contrast media, including anaphylaxis, angioedema and bronchospasm
- milder previous reactions to iodinated contrast media/excipients
- renal impairment/failure
- risk factors for allergic reaction to iodinated contrast media
Water-soluble iodinated contrast media can be classified by osmolality.
High osmolality contrast media
High osmolality contrast media (HOCM) are approximately five to eight times the osmolality of serum. In general, HOCM are ionic compounds that include a benzene ring with three iodine atoms and a side chain containing a carboxylic acid (-COOH) group. As the first generation of iodinated contrast agents, HOCM were associated with high rates of adverse events and fell out of favor in the 1990s for intravascular and intrathecal purposes. HOCM remain used for gastrointestinal and cystourethral administration, including the following agents:
- diatrizoate sodium/meglumine (Gastrografin, MD-Gastroview, Cystografin)
- iothalamate sodium/meglumine (Conray, Cysto-Conray)
Low osmolality contrast media
Low osmolality contrast media (LOCM) are less than three times the osmolality of human serum and preferred for intravascular and intrathecal administration. Modern LOCM are generally, but not always, nonionic monomers composed of tri-iodinated benzene rings with various side chains that contain polar alcohol (-OH) groups that make them water-soluble 3. LOCM in current use include the following:
- iopamidol (Isovue)
- iohexol (Omnipaque)
- iopromide (Ultravist)
- ioversol (Optiray)
- ioxilan (Oxilan)
The LOCM category also includes iso-osmolal contrast media (IOCM), which are approximately the same osmolality as serum. The only IOCM in current use is a non-ionic dimer, which is composed of two covalently bound tri-iodinated benzene rings:
- iodixanol (Visipaque)
The dimer structure of iodixanol fits a higher concentration of iodine atoms per osmole, permitting diagnostic levels of contrast opacification at less toxic osmolality.
Non-ionic LOCM are available in varying concentrations ranging from 240 to 400 mg iodine/mL. Higher concentration formulations produce a greater peak of enhancement (measured in Hounsfield units) but are also more viscous.
Water-insoluble iodinated contrast media have limited uses. The only currently approved agent is ethiodized poppyseed oil (Lipiodol), which is used for embolo/sclerotherapy and hysterosalpingography. A historically-popular but now discontinued water-insoluble iodinated agent was iophendylate (Pantopaque/Myodil), which was used for myelography.
Contrast injected intravenously is often mechanical via a computerized pressure injector. The American College of Radiology recommends a cannula of 20-gauge or larger for the mechanical injection of intravenous contrast for any injections that require a flow rate higher than 3 mL/s 6.
The prewarming of contrast agents, particular ones of higher concentration (370 mg/mL) will lower the chances of contrast extravasation 5.
In the context of the critically ill patient where intravenous access is not possible, iodinated contrast can be administered via an intraosseous injection. Pressure rates must be high due to the intramedullary pressure within the bone. According to the ACR Committee on Drugs and Contrast Media, there are no reported complications of intraosseous injections at 5 mL/s 6. The humerus is the most commonly accepted site of injection 7,8.
Allergic-like reactions to iodinated contrast agents are rare, accounting for 0.6% of cases with only 0.04% considered severe 9. Patients who suffer from allergic reactions to shellfish or topical iodine are not at any higher risk of contrast allergy than patients with any other allergy or asthma, which is only slightly elevated 10-12.
- 1. Anthony B. Wolbarst. Physics of Radiology. ISBN: 9781930524224
- 2. Jonathan Clayden, Nick Greeves, Stuart Warren. Organic Chemistry. ISBN: 9780199270293
- 3. Caschera L, Lazzara A, Piergallini L, Ricci D, Tuscano B, Vanzulli A. Contrast agents in diagnostic imaging: Present and future. Pharmacological research. 110: 65-75. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2016.04.023 - Pubmed
- 4. Bae KT. Intravenous contrast medium administration and scan timing at CT: considerations and approaches. Radiology. 256 (1): 32-61. doi:10.1148/radiol.10090908 - Pubmed
- 5. Davenport MS, Wang CL, Bashir MR, Neville AM, Paulson EK. Rate of contrast material extravasations and allergic-like reactions: effect of extrinsic warming of low-osmolality iodinated CT contrast material to 37 degrees C. Radiology. 262 (2): 475-84. doi:10.1148/radiol.11111282 - Pubmed
- 6. ACR Manual on Contrast Media. ACR Manual on Contrast Media. ACR Committee on Drugs and Contrast Media, 2017. [Link].
- 7. Knuth TE, Paxton JH, Myers D. Intraosseous injection of iodinated computed tomography contrast agent in an adult blunt trauma patient. Annals of emergency medicine. 57 (4): 382-6. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2010.09.025 - Pubmed
- 8. Philbeck TE, Miller LJ, Montez D, Puga T. Hurts so good. Easing IO pain and pressure. JEMS : a journal of emergency medical services. 35 (9): 58-62, 65-6, 68; quiz 69. doi:10.1016/S0197-2510(10)70232-1 - Pubmed
- 9. Wang CL, Cohan RH, Ellis JH, Caoili EM, Wang G, Francis IR. Frequency, outcome, and appropriateness of treatment of nonionic iodinated contrast media reactions. AJR. American journal of roentgenology. 191 (2): 409-15. doi:10.2214/AJR.07.3421 - Pubmed
- 10. Beaty AD, Lieberman PL, Slavin RG. Seafood allergy and radiocontrast media: are physicians propagating a myth?. The American journal of medicine. 121 (2): 158.e1-4. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2007.08.025 - Pubmed
- 11.Boehm I. Seafood allergy and radiocontrast media: are physicians propagating a myth?. The American journal of medicine. 121 (8): e19. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2008.03.035 - Pubmed
- 12. Shehadi WH. Adverse reactions to intravascularly administered contrast media. A comprehensive study based on a prospective survey. The American journal of roentgenology, radium therapy, and nuclear medicine. 124 (1): 145-52. Pubmed
Related Radiopaedia articles
Physics and imaging technology: CT
computed tomography (CT)
- CT technology
- dual energy CT
- CT image reconstruction
- CT image quality
- CT dose
CT contrast medium
iodinated contrast media
- water soluble
- water insoluble
- vicarious contrast material excretion
- contrast allergy
- contrast media extravasation
- contrast-induced nephropathy
- iodinated contrast-induced thyrotoxicosis
- contrast media and breastfeeding
- non-iodinated contrast media
- iodinated contrast media
- coronary CT angiography
- patient-based artifacts
- physics-based artifacts
- hardware-based artifacts
- CT safety
- history of CT