Airport scanners can detect medical problems because they use radiofrequency waves to scan for abnormalities or bulges on passengers.

If a passenger repeatedly gets stopped and patted down at the same spot, it’s a good idea for them to go to a doctor and use a TSA Notification Card.

How Airport Scanners Detect Medical Problems

As part of the TSA’s security screening procedures, airports either use backscatter or millimeter-wave scanners, with the latter found more commonly in large airports.

Backscatter scanners aren’t particularly useful at detecting medical problems, but millimeter-wave scanners, which use radio frequencies instead of x-rays, are able to.

Backscatter X-ray image
What a Backscatter X-ray sees

Backscatter machines use low energy x-rays that reflect the x-rays back to the machine.

Millimeter wave machines use low-energy non-ionizing radiofrequency waves to bounce waves off passengers and back into the scanner to detect any unusual objects

Examples of Airport Scanners Detecting a Medical Problem

Instead of hearsay, there are cases in the medical literature that have noted an airport scanner detecting a medical problem.

JAMA Dermatology, which is a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, reports that one female passenger with a skin cyst was regularly stopped on suspicion of hiding an explosive device at U.S. airports.

To avoid the personally invasive security searches, she subsequently traveled with a doctor’s note.

Another case involved a man with a protrusion in his groin area that set off airport scanners.

He was interrogated and subjected to a genital exam.

Airport Scanners Can’t Detect Cancer or Inflammation

Airport scanners are unable to detect cancer or inflammation.

Airport scanners are only able to detect things that are not part of the body.

A female TSA agent instructing a woman inside an airport body scanner

This includes skin growths, implants, colostomy bags, and other metallic or non-metallic things that protrude from the body.

Airport Scanners Detecting Medical Problems is on the Rise

Millimeter-wave scanners are already found at many larger airports, but even smaller airports are now changing from backscatter scanners to radiofrequency, which are able to detect more.

This explains why there have been an increase in passengers getting stopped and then going to the doctor to find out that they have a medical problem.

This increase is by no means large, though, because airport scanners are used to detect suspicious items and not as medical diagnosis tools.

What You Should Do If You Keep On Setting Off Airport Body Scanners

If you keep on getting stopped by airport scanners, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor as soon as possible.

As you know now, the scanner could be detecting a medical problem.

Harmless things like lipomas (fatty lumps) or lipodystrophy (abnormal distribution of fat) could also show up on airport scanners.

Scar tissue may also set off airport scanners, too.

Whether the reason you keep on setting off airport scanners is serious or not, it’s a good idea to get a doctor’s note, so you won’t potentially have to go through invasive searches.

Generally, for any external skin lesion that is larger than 2 inches and is located under the clothes, obtaining a doctor’s note would be the smart thing to do.

Considering that the TSA is concerned with passenger safety, a TSA agent may still want to perform a pat down to be on the safe side, though.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).