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Abscess scan - radioactive


Radioactive abscess scan looks for abscesses in the body using a radioactive material. An abscess occurs when pus collects due to an infection.

Alternative Names

Radioactive abscess scan; Abscess scan; Indium Scan; Indium-labelled white blood cell scan

How the Test is Performed

Blood is drawn from a vein, most often on the inside of the elbow or the back of the hand.

  • The site is cleaned with germ-killing medicine (antiseptic).
  • The health care provider wraps an elastic band around the upper arm to apply pressure to the area and make the vein swell with blood.
  • Next, the provider gently inserts a needle into the vein. The blood collects into an airtight vial or tube attached to the needle.
  • The elastic band is removed from your arm.
  • The puncture site is covered to stop any bleeding.

The blood sample is then sent to a lab. There the white blood cells are tagged with a radioactive substance called indium. The cells are then injected back into a vein through another needle stick.

You will need to return to the office 6 to 24 hours later. At that time, you will have a nuclear medicine scan to see if white blood cells have gathered in areas of your body where they would not be normally.

How to Prepare for the Test

Most of the time you do not need special preparation. You will need to sign a consent form.

For the test, you will need to wear a hospital gown or loose clothing. You will need to take off all jewelry.

Tell your provider if you are pregnant. This procedure is NOT recommended if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Women of childbearing age (before menopause) should use some form of birth control during the course of this procedure.

Tell your provider if you have or had any of the following medical conditions, procedures, or treatments, as they can interfere with test results:

How the Test will Feel

Some people feel a little pain when the needle is inserted to draw blood. Others feel only a prick or sting. Afterward, there may be some throbbing.

The nuclear medicine scan is painless. It may be a little uncomfortable to lie flat and still on the scanning table. This most often takes about an hour.

Why the Test is Performed

The test may be done to look for an infection, often for a bone infection called osteomyelitis. It is also used to look for an abscess that may form after surgery or on its own.

Other times it can be used to look for an abscess. Symptoms of an abscess depend on where it is found, but may include:

  • Fever
  • Not feeling well (malaise)
  • Pain

Often, other imaging tests such as an ultrasound or CT scan may be done first.

Normal Results

Normal findings would show no abnormal gathering of white blood cells.

What Abnormal Results Mean

A gathering of white blood cells outside of the normal areas is a sign of either an abscess or other type of inflammatory process.

Some types of abscess are:


The risks of this test include:

  • Some bruising may occur at the site of injection.
  • There is always a slight chance of infection when the skin is broken.
  • There is low-level radiation exposure.

The test is controlled so that you get only the smallest amount of radiation exposure needed to produce the image. Most experts feel that the risk is very low compared with the benefits.

Pregnant women and children are more sensitive to the risks of radiation.


Hutton BF, Segerman D, Miles KA. Radionuclide imaging. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, Gillard JH, et al. eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 6th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 6.

Review Date:10/22/2014
Reviewed By:Jason Levy, MD, Northside Radiology Associates, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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Outcome Data

No data available for this condition/procedure.

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