Sinus X-Ray

Written by Janelle Martel | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is a Sinus X-Ray?

A sinus X-ray uses radiation to form a picture of your sinuses. There are four different sets of sinus passages, which are the air-filled spaces in the front of the face: over and around the eyes, in the cheekbones, between the eyes, and behind the eyes.

The passages will look black on an X-ray of healthy sinuses. This is because they are filled with air, which appears black on X-rays. A grey or white area on the X-ray of the sinuses indicates a problem. Most often, this is due to fluid or inflammation in the sinuses.

A sinus X-ray may also be called X-ray of the sinuses or paranasal sinus radiography. Sinus X-rays are a noninvasive test that can be completed quickly and with little discomfort or pain.

What Does a Sinus X-Ray Diagnose?

Your doctor will order a sinus X-ray when you are experiencing symptoms of sinus problems or sinusitis, also known as a sinus infection.

Symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • stuffy nose with thick nasal secretions that may appear white, yellow, or green
  • pain or tenderness in the forehead, between the eyes, in the cheeks, upper jaw, and teeth
  • feeling of fullness in the face and swelling around the eyes, around the nose, and in the cheeks
  • decreased sense of smell
  • fatigue and general feeling of being unwell (malaise)
  • cough, which is typically worse at night
  • sore throat
  • earache
  • fever

Sinusitis can either be acute or chronic. Acute sinusitis typically lasts a couple of weeks and can be caused by infectious or non-infectious causes. Infections that can cause acute sinusitis include viral infections (including the common cold), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. Additionally, anything that raises your risk of getting a sinus infection can cause acute sinusitis. Sinusitis can be brought about by non-infectious causes as well, such as allergies, reduced immune function, enlarged or infected adenoids in children, and tumors or polyps in the nasal passages or sinuses.

Chronic sinusitis means that the sinuses are inflamed and infected for 12 weeks or more. This can be caused by many of the same things that cause acute sinusitis. Causes for chronic sinusitis include infection, asthma, allergies, recurring acute sinusitis, trauma to the face, problems with the respiratory tract, and immune deficiency disorders.

A sinus X-ray may also be used to diagnose other sinus problems, including hemorrhage (bleeding) or tumor in the sinuses. This imaging can also be used to help diagnose meningitis (a bacterial infection in the brain and spinal cord) or orbital cellulitis (an infection around the eye).

What Happens During a Sinus X-Ray

An X-ray typically takes place at a hospital or a medical laboratory. There is no preparation required for the procedure, except for removing any jewelry or metal objects you may be wearing. A radiologist or X-ray technician will perform the sinus X-ray.

You may be seated or asked to lie down on an X-ray table. The radiologist will place a lead apron over your torso to help protect you from radiation. The radiologist will then place your head in line with the X-ray machine. You will need to hold this position as the X-ray technician steps behind a protective window to take the X-ray.

It is important to remain still as possible while the X-ray is being taken, otherwise the image will be blurred. It will only take a couple of seconds to take the X-ray, during which time you may hear a clicking sound, similar to the sound a camera makes when taking a picture.

The radiologist may need to reposition you several times in order to get images of all the sinuses.

What Are the Risks of a Sinus X-Ray?

An X-ray uses radiation to take images of the body. While an X-ray uses relatively low amounts of radiation, there is still a risk every time the body is exposed to radiation. It is important that your doctor knows what medical tests you have had in the past, so you are not overexposed to radiation.

If you are pregnant or think you might be pregnant, it important to inform your doctor, as radiation can cause birth defects. Your doctor may wish to order a different test, or use special measures to protect the fetus from radiation.

Further Testing for Sinus Issues

Sinus X-rays are less invasive than other sinus tests, but they’re also less comprehensive. While sinus X-rays can only be used to indicate the presence of a problem, other sinus tests can be used to help determine the cause of a sinus problem.

These tests include:

  • nasal endoscopy or rhinoscopy
  • blood tests
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • sinus puncture and bacteria culture
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