Thermography is a test that uses an infrared camera to detect heat patterns and blood flow in body tissues. However, it should not be considered a good substitute for a mammogram.

Digital infrared thermal imaging (DITI) is the type of thermography that reveals temperature differences on the surface of the breasts. It is not FDA approved as a stand-alone screening tool, and there is no scientific evidence for its use in diagnosing breast cancer.

The idea behind this test is that, as cancer cells multiply, they need more oxygen-rich blood to grow. When blood flow to the tumor increases, the temperature around it rises.

One advantage is that thermography doesn’t give off radiation like mammography, which uses low dose X-rays to take pictures from inside the breasts. However, thermography is not as effective as mammography at detecting breast cancer.

Keep reading to learn more about how this procedure stacks up against mammography, when it might be beneficial, and what to expect from the procedure.

Thermography for medical use has been around since the 1950s. It first caught the interest of the medical community as a potential screening tool.

But in the 1970s, a review article called the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project found that thermography was far less sensitive than mammography at picking up cancer, and interest in it waned.

Thermography is not considered an alternative to mammography. It has a high false-positive rate, which means that it sometimes “finds” cancerous cells when there are not any present.

And in women who have been diagnosed with cancer, the test is ineffective at corroborating these results. In a 1990 study of more than 10,000 women, almost 72 percent of those who developed breast cancer had had a normal thermogram result.

One problem with this test is that it has trouble distinguishing the causes of increased heat. Although areas of warmth in the breast can signal breast cancer, they can also indicate noncancerous diseases such as mastitis.

Mammography can also have false-positive results, and it can sometimes miss breast cancers. Yet it’s still the most effective method for diagnosing breast cancer early.

Thermography has been promoted as a more effective screening test for women under 50 years old and for those with dense breasts. Mammograms are not as sensitive in these two groups.

But because thermography isn’t very good at picking up breast cancer on its own, experts say you should not use it as a substitute for mammography. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only cleared thermography use as an add-on procedure to mammograms or another primary screening test for diagnosing breast cancer.

You may be asked to avoid wearing deodorant on the day of the exam.

You’ll first undress from the waist up so that your body can adjust to the room temperature. Then you will stand in front of the imaging system. A technician will take a series of six images — including front and side views — of your breasts. The whole test takes about 30 minutes.

A radiologist will analyze the images and report their findings to your doctor. You’ll receive the results within a few days.

Thermography is a noninvasive test that uses a camera to take images of your breasts. There is no radiation exposure, no compression of your breasts, and no real risks associated with the test.

Although thermography is safe, there is not any evidence to prove it’s effective. The test has a high false-positive rate, meaning that it sometimes finds cancer when none is present. It’s also worth noting that the test is not as sensitive as mammography at finding early breast cancer.

The cost of a breast thermogram can vary from center to center. The average cost is around $175-250.

Medicare does not cover the cost of thermography. Some private health insurance plans might cover part or all of the cost.

Talk with your doctor about your breast cancer risks and your screening options.

Organizations like the American College of Physicians (ACP), American Cancer Society (ACS), and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) each have their own screening guidelines. All of them recommend mammography for finding breast cancer in its early stages.

A mammogram is still the most effective method for finding breast cancer early.

Although mammograms do expose you to small amounts of radiation, the benefits of finding breast cancer outweigh the risks of this exposure. Plus, your technician will do everything possible to minimize your radiation exposure during the test.

Depending on your individual risk for breast cancer, your doctor might advise that you add another test like ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or thermography.

If you have dense breasts, you might want to consider a newer variation of the mammogram called 3-D mammography or tomosynthesis. This test creates images in thin slices, giving the radiologist a better view of any abnormal growths in your breasts.

Research has indicated that 3-D mammograms are more accurate at finding cancer than standard 2-D mammograms. They also cut down on false-positive results.

When deciding on a breast cancer screening method, consider asking your doctor these questions:

  • Am I at high risk for breast cancer?
  • Should I get a mammogram?
  • When should I start getting mammograms?
  • How often do I need to get mammograms?
  • Will a 3-D mammogram improve my chances of getting diagnosed early?
  • What are the possible risks from this test?
  • What happens if I have a false-positive result?
  • Do I need thermography or other additional tests to screen for breast cancer?
  • What are the benefits and risks of adding these tests?