Chest X-ray

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What is a chest X-ray?

A chest X-ray is a medical test that is used to visualize the bones, organs and other structures inside the chest. A wide variety of healthcare providers, from primary care doctors to surgeons, use chest X-rays to check the health and functioning of the heart, lungs and ribs. Sometimes, an X-ray of the chest is called a heart X-ray or lung X-ray depending on the reason for the imaging test.

Why is a chest X-ray performed?

Doctors order chest X-rays to assess:

  • Persistent cough. A chest X-ray can help healthcare providers determine if your cough is caused by a problem in your lungs. 

  • Chest pain, especially after an injury to the chest. An X-ray of the chest can reveal broken ribs, a punctured lung, damage to the heart, or an enlarged heart.

  • Difficulty breathing. A chest X-ray is often the first test performed on patients who arrive at an emergency room with shortness of breath. Chest X-rays allow doctors to quickly diagnose—or rule out—many common causes of shortness of breath including pneumonia, collapsed lungs, or broken ribs.

  • Progress of lung conditions. Doctors use chest X-rays to determine the severity of tuberculosis, pneumonia, emphysema, lung cancer, and other lung conditions.

  • Response to treatment. By comparing X-ray test results before and after treatment, doctors can tell if treatment is having a desired effect. For example, a chest X-ray after treatment for lung cancer will hopefully show less evidence of cancer.

Who performs a chest X-ray?

A radiologic technologist, sometimes called an X-ray tech, will perform your chest X-ray. A radiologist—an expert in interpreting chest X-rays, and diagnosing and treating diseases using different medical imaging tests—will share the results with you and your other healthcare providers.

How are chest X-rays performed?

Most often, chest X-rays are performed in a standing position. You may be asked to stand against a film plate in front of the X-ray machine. The technician will then walk behind a wall or into another room before activating the machine. The technician may ask you to change position and take more X-ray pictures. The entire procedure typically takes less than 15 minutes.

People who cannot stand for an X-ray may have the test while lying down, using specialized X-ray equipment.

You may be asked to put on a hospital gown, and asked to remove any jewelry that could interfere with the X-ray images. Chest X-rays are not uncomfortable, though the film plate may feel cold. You will be asked to remain still and hold your breath for a few seconds during your X-ray. Holding your breath prevents movement of your lungs and produces a better, clearer picture.

What are the risks and potential complications of a chest X-ray?

X-rays use small amounts of ionizing radiation to produce images. Exposure to radiation is linked to an increased risk of cancer. Modern X-ray machines use very small amounts of ionizing radiation, so your exposure to radiation during an X-ray is minimal and unlikely to cause any problems.

X-rays can also interfere with the development of a fetus. That’s why X-rays are not typically performed during pregnancy unless necessary. If you are or might be pregnant, tell your healthcare provider and the X-ray technician. There are other imaging tests that do not use radiation to create an image. If your doctor needs to image your heart, you can have an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart. Doctors can also use ultrasound to image your lungs. MRI is another imaging test that does not use radiation, but it is much more expensive than X-ray and ultrasound tests.

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce your radiation exposure by wearing a lead “apron” over your pelvic area to shield your reproductive organs during your chest X-ray. Lead blocks the ionizing radiation (and other types of radiation).

How do I prepare for a chest X-ray?

No special preparation is necessary for a chest X-ray.

While a chest X-ray is a painless procedure, it’s normal to have some questions and concerns. Getting answers to your questions will put your mind at ease.

Questions you may want to ask your doctor include:

  • Why do I need a chest X-ray?

  • What are you looking for?

  • When can I expect results?

What can I expect after my chest X-ray?

X-ray results are usually available soon after the test is over. You may receive results the same day or the next day.

A normal X-ray will show that your airways and lungs are clear of fluid and infection and there are no abnormal masses or objects; your heart shows no signs of damage or enlargement; your esophagus and thoracic aorta are normal; and there is no sign of fractured ribs or other damage.

If you have an abnormal X-ray, additional tests or medical treatment may be necessary. For example, if your chest X-ray shows signs of heart damage or an enlarged heart, your doctor will want you to have other cardiac diagnostic and imaging tests.

When should I call my doctor?

Call your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve after your X-ray and treatment.

If you are otherwise healthy, you can resume your normal activities immediately after your chest X-ray. If the chest X-ray reveals an injury (such as broken ribs) or medical condition (such as pneumonia), your activity may be limited until you’re healthy again.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 23
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Chest X-ray. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003804.htm

  2. X-ray (Radiography) – Chest. Radiological Society of North America. https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=chestrad

  3. Chest X Ray. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cxray