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Do airport x-rays affect medications?

Q: I travel frequently and always carry my estrogen and thyroid pills with me. Could the radiation from airport security alter them or make them less effective?

A: Most medications are not affected by the low doses of radiation emitted by airport screening machines, even if they’re exposed several times in a trip. Certain drugs called “biologics,” which include insulin and red blood-cell boosters such as epoetin alfa injection (Epogen, Procrit, and others) require special handling and storage; travelers sometimes worry about putting them through the x-ray machine. But according to the FDA’s Center for Biologics, any harmful effects from x-rays on these medications would occur only at doses that are “orders of magnitude higher” than the radiation received from x-ray screening devices.

If a drug’s effectiveness or safety could be affected by airport x-ray screening, the danger would be indicated on the label or package insert. The FDA, which oversees labeling, says it “knows of no drugs that have special instructions in the labeling to avoid airport x-ray machines.” If you’re still concerned, you can call the manufacturer of each of your medications. Otherwise, simply ask to have your carry-on bag inspected by hand. The Transportation Security Administration says you have the right to visual inspection of your medications. If you decide to have this done, make sure they are in a pouch or bag that can be easily separated from your other carry-on baggage — it's helpful to screeners and will reduce delays.

Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., is the Editor in Chief of Harvard Women’s Health Watch: