Chest x-ray

A chest x-ray uses a small amount of radiation to create an image that shows the ribs, lungs, diaphragm and size of the heart.

image of a chest x-ray

A chest x-ray is one of the most common x-rays to be taken. When someone is acutely unwell with shortness of breath, fever and cough, a chest x-ray may be ordered to look for signs of infection, (such as pneumonia), inflammation, fluid build up in the lungs or tumours or masses.

It is also often used to assess people who have smoked for many years to look for signs of chronic lung disease and lung cancer.

A chest x-ray is also often done before an operation in older adults to check the lungs and heart appear normal. 

How do x-rays work?

An x-ray uses a small amount of radiation to create images of your bones and internal organs. Structures containing air (such as the lungs) will be black, muscle, fat, and fluid will appear as shades of gray and dense structures such as bones will block most of the x-ray particles, and will appear white.

What to expect

When having a chest x-ray, you will be asked to remove your watch, jewellery or garments with metal closures from the part of your body being imaged. These items can block part of the image. You will then be asked to wear a gown.

You may be asked about your overall health or any medications you take. Let the radiographer (the person who performs your x-ray) know if you:

  • are or may be pregnant
  • have had a chest x-ray before
  • have metal (e.g. a pacemaker or a surgical pin) anywhere.

During your x-ray

These days, having an x-ray is very quick and most only take 5 to 10 minutes. 

  • You will be asked to sit or stand near the x-ray plates.
  • A lead apron may be draped over part of your body to shield it from the x-rays.
  • You will probably be asked to take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds.
  • Having an x-ray is like having a photo taken. You need to hold still and you will not feel anything. 
  • While having an x-ray is painless, sometimes the position needed for the best view of the area being x-rayed is uncomfortable for a minute or two.
  • For best results, remain as still as you can during your x-ray exam.

After your x-ray

The films or images will be viewed by a radiologist (doctor who specialises in imaging) who will describe what the x-ray shows. This report will then be sent to your doctor who will discuss the test results with you during a follow-up appointment or over the phone.

Are there any risks?

Some people are concerned having an x-ray increases your chance of contracting cancer. However, it is believed that you would have to be x-rayed many, many times to receive the amount of radiation that would be bad for your health. The amount of radiation you get from having a chest x-ray is much less than the Earth’s natural radiation you are exposed to every day.

Credits: Health Navigator Team, September 2014.