What is Chest X-Ray, and Why Are They Performed?

If you were asked what you would see in an X-ray image, odds are you would say bones. And it’s true – X-ray imaging is very good at looking at your bones.

But interestingly, the most frequently performed X-ray exam is a chest X-ray. This exam may be ordered to look for rib fractures or other problems with bones in the chest, but it’s also frequently requested to look at the lungs and heart.

What is a chest X-ray?

X-ray imaging uses a type of electromagnetic ionizing radiation to create images of your lungs, heart, and the bones of your chest and spine. 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.

Why do I need a chest X-ray?

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
  • Fever
  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms could be the result of the following conditions, which a chest X-ray can detect:

  • Broken ribs
  • Emphysema (a long-term, progressive lung condition that causes breathing difficulties)
  • Heart failure
  • Lung cancer
  • Pneumonia
  • 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 they can make sure you’re not experiencing any air leaks or fluid buildup.


Chest X-rays are a useful tool to help diagnose COPD, but they are only one part of a diagnosis.

Chest X-rays expose the person to radiation, but they receive only a very small amount. Anyone pregnant should talk to their doctor before getting an X-ray, as they will need to take extra precautions.

It is important to follow up with treatment as soon as possible, after a diagnosis. Many treatment options can help slow the progression of the disease and help manage symptoms for the best outlook.

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