An X-ray is an imaging test that uses small amounts of radiation to produce pictures of the organs, tissues, and bones of the body. When focused on the chest, it can help spot abnormalities or diseases of the airways, blood vessels, bones, heart, and lungs. Chest X-rays can also determine if you have fluid in your lungs, or fluid or air surrounding your lungs.
Your doctor could order a chest X-ray for a variety of reasons, including to assess injuries resulting from an accident or to monitor the progression of a disease, such as cystic fibrosis. You might also need a chest X-ray if you go to the emergency room with chest pain, or if you’ve been involved in an accident that included force to your chest area.
A chest X-ray is an easy, quick, and effective test that has been useful for decades to help doctors view some of your most vital organs.
Your doctor may order a chest X-ray if they suspect that your symptoms have a connection to problems in your chest. Suspicious symptoms may include:
- chest pain
- persistent cough
- shortness of breath
These symptoms could be the result of the following conditions, which a chest X-ray can detect:
- broken ribs
- a collapsed lung
- emphysema (a long-term, progressive lung condition that causes breathing difficulties)
- heart failure
- lung cancer
- pneumothorax (a collection of air in the space between your lungs and your chest wall)
Another use for a chest X-ray is to see the size and shape of your heart. Abnormalities in the size and shape of your heart can indicate issues with heart function.
Doctors sometimes use chest X-rays to monitor your progress after surgery to the chest area. Doctors can check to see that any implanted materials are in the right place, and can make sure you’re not experiencing any air leaks or fluid buildup.
Chest X-rays require very little preparation on the part of the patient.
You will need to remove any jewelry, eyeglasses, body piercings, or other metal on your person. Tell your doctor if you have a surgically implanted device, such as a heart valve or pacemaker. Your doctor may opt for a chest X-ray if you have metal implants. Other scans, such as MRIs, can be risky for people who have metal in their bodies.
Before the X-ray, you’ll undress from the waist up and change into a hospital gown.
The X-ray occurs in a special room with a movable X-ray camera attached to a large metal arm. You will stand next to a “plate.” This plate may contain X-ray film or a special sensor that records the images on a computer. You’ll wear a lead apron to cover your genitals. This is because your sperm (men) and eggs (women) could be damaged from the radiation.
The X-ray technician will tell you how to stand and will record both front and side views of your chest. While the images are taken, you’ll need to hold your breath so that your chest stays completely still. If you move, the images might turn out blurry. As the radiation passes through your body and onto the plate, denser materials, such as bone and the muscles of your heart, will appear white.
After the images have been captured — which should take 20 minutes or so — your part is complete. You can change back into your clothes and go about your day.
Doctors agree that exposure to the small amount of radiation produced during an X-ray is well worth it because of the diagnostic benefits the test provides.
However, doctors don’t recommend X-rays if you are pregnant. This is because radiation can harm your unborn baby. If you believe you are pregnant, make sure you tell your doctor.
A lab usually develops the images from a chest X-ray on large sheets of film. When viewed against a lit background, your doctor can look for an array of problems, from tumors to broken bones.
A radiologist also goes over the images and gives your doctor their interpretation. Your doctor will discuss the results of your X-ray with you at a follow-up appointment.