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• X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation that can pass through solid objects, including the body. X-rays penetrate different objects more or less according to their density. In medicine, X-rays are used to view images of the bones and other structures in the body.
• X-rays were first discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, a German physics professor. Roentgen also studied X-rays and their ability to pass through human tissues to produce images of the bones and metals visible on developed film.
• To obtain an X-ray image of a part of the body, a patient is positioned, so the part of the body being X-rayed is between the source of the X-ray and an X-ray detector. As the X-rays pass through the body, images appear in shades of black and white, depending on the type of tissue the X-rays pass through.
• For example, the calcium in your bones makes them denser, so they absorb more radiation and appear white on X-rays. Thus when a bone is broken (fractured), the fracture line will appear as a dark area within the lighter bone on an X-ray film.

• Less dense tissue such as muscle or fat absorbs less, and these structures appear in shades of gray on X-ray film. Air absorbs little of the X-rays, so the lungs and any air-filled cavities appear black on an X-ray film. If pneumonia or tumors are present in the lungs, they are denser than the lungs’ air-filled areas and will appear as whiter spots on X-ray film.

Usage of X-rays

The most common form of X-ray used is X-ray radiography, which can be used to help detect or diagnose:
• Bone fractures
• Infections (such as pneumonia)
• Calcifications (like kidney stones or vascular calcifications)
• Some tumors
• Arthritis in joints
• Bone loss (such as osteoporosis)
• Dental issues
• Heart problems (such as congestive heart failure)
• Blood vessel blockages
• Digestive problems
• Foreign objects (such as items swallowed by children)

A chest X-ray is most commonly used to detect abnormalities in the lungs. However, it can also detect abnormalities in the heart, aorta, and the thoracic area’s bones. Chest X-rays are used to help diagnose:
• Cysts
• Tumors
• Asthma
• Cancers
• Heart failure
• Fractures
• Lung diseases and conditions

Types of X-rays

Many types of X-rays are used to diagnose conditions and diseases. The following are examples.
• Mammography is a type of X-ray radiograph that is used to detect breast cancer.
• Computed tomography (CT) scans combine X-ray with computer processing to create detailed pictures (scans) of cross-sections of the body combined to form a three-dimensional X-ray image.
• Fluoroscopy uses X-rays and a fluorescent screen to study moving or real-time structures in the body, such as viewing the heart beating. It can also be used to combine swallowed or injected contrast agents to view the digestive processes or blood flow. Cardiac angioplasty uses fluoroscopy with a contrast agent to guide an internally threaded catheter to help open clogged arteries. Fluoroscopy is also used to precisely place instruments in certain locations within the body, such as epidural injections or joint aspirations.
• Other uses for X-rays and different types of radiation include cancer treatment. High-energy radiation in much higher doses than what is used for X-ray imaging may be utilized to help destroy cancerous cells and tumors by damaging their DNA.

Dangers and Risks of X-rays

Radiation does have some risks to consider, but it is also essential to remember X-rays can help detect disease or injury at early stages so the ailment can be treated appropriately. Sometimes X-ray testing can be life-saving.

The risk from X-rays comes from the radiation they produce, which can harm living tissues. This risk is relatively small, but it increases with cumulative exposure. That is, the more you are exposed to radiation over your lifetime, the higher your risk of harm from the radiation.

There is a slightly increased risk of developing cancer later in life after X-ray exposure. X-rays have also been linked to cataracts in the eyes and skin burns, but only at too high radiation levels.

Things that are risk factors for X-ray damage include:
• A higher number of X-ray exams
• Receiving X-rays at a younger age
• Being female (women have a slightly higher lifetime risk than men for developing radiation-associated cancer)

Things you can do to reduce radiation risks from X-rays:
• Please keep track of your X-ray history and make sure your doctors are aware of it
• Ask your health-care professional if there are alternative tests to X-ray exams
• If you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant, tell the X-ray technician or radiologist

Prepping for an X-ray exam

There is no special preparation needed for a regular diagnostic X-ray. You may be asked to strip down and wear a hospital gown or remove clothing on the part of the body that needs to be X-rayed. You may be asked to remove any metal objects such as eyeglasses, jewelry, or watches that may interfere. Suppose you are getting an X-ray with contrast such as barium or iodine. In that case, you may be given a liquid to swallow, an injection, or an enema with the agent before the X-ray. Suppose you are getting an X-ray of your gastrointestinal tract. In that case, you may be told not to eat or drink anything for eight or more hours before the procedure, so your stomach is empty. Your doctor will tell you if you need to do this.

An X-ray technician will position you on an exam table and instruct you how you should place your body for the X-ray. You can ask questions if you have them.

The X-ray test works by positioning the part of the body being X-rayed between the source of the X-ray and an X-ray detector (such as a film). You usually will need to lie on a table or stand against a flat surface to ensure your body is in the right place for the X-rays to pass through the body part being examined. You will be asked to stay still so the image will be as clear as possible. This will provide the most accurate image. Dental X-rays usually involve biting on a piece of film.

A radiology technician will aim the X-ray machine at the body part that needs to be X-rayed. Then they will leave the room or go behind a screen to turn on the machine. The actual X-ray usually only takes a fraction of a second, and you will not feel anything when it occurs.
The radiology technician may return and reposition your body or the X-ray slide to take additional X-rays from multiple angles.

The entire procedure for a regular usually only takes a few minutes. If contrast agents are used, a procedure may take an hour or more.

Side Effects of Contrast Agents

If contrast agents are used, you may experience some side effects.

Side effects of barium include:
• Nausea
• Vomiting
• Stomach cramps
• Diarrhea
• Constipation
• Allergic reactions (tell your doctor immediately if these occur): hives, itching, skin redness, swelling of the throat, hoarseness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, agitation, confusion, fast heartbeat

Side effects of iodine include:
• Nausea
• Vomiting
• Metallic taste in the mouth
• Headache
• Itching
• Flushing
• Lightheadedness
• Skin rash or hives
• Wheezing
• Abnormal heart rhythms
• High or low blood pressure
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Following an X-ray procedure

There are no side effects or after-effects of a regular X-ray. You should be able to return to your normal daily activities immediately.
If you had an X-ray with contrast, there might be some temporary side effects. Barium may cause your stool to turn a whitish color, and iodine injections may cause some people to feel sick or develop a rash. 

Injections given to relax the stomach before an X-ray of that body part may cause temporary blurred vision. You will likely be instructed to drink plenty of fluids after an X-ray with contrast to help your body rid itself of these agents.

X-ray Results

After an X-ray is taken, the image is produced immediately. However, the time it takes to learn the results varies.

If your X-ray is taken in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, the doctor or dentist will likely read the X-ray and discuss results with you in the same visit. Suppose your X-ray is taken while you are in a hospital’s emergency department or an in-patient in a hospital. In that case, it will be read by the emergency physician or sent to a radiologist to read. Depending on how busy the hospital is, this can take a few hours. Once read, it will be sent to the physician treating you, who will discuss the findings.

Sometimes, you may be sent to an imaging center to have your X-rays taken. Once the X-rays are done, a radiologist will read on staff at the imaging center and then transmitted them to your doctor who ordered the tests. This may take a day or more. Once your doctor receives the results, they will likely call you to discuss the results over the phone or suggest a follow-up visit in the office, or they may refer you to another doctor depending on the findings.


By reading this website, you acknowledge that you are responsible for your own health decisions. The information throughout this medical website is not intended to be taken as medical advice. The information provided is intended for general information regarding our Pulmonology services. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact our office for a personal consultation. Avoid worrisome self-diagnosis; the best pulmonology doctors will properly diagnose your problem and refer you to a specialist if necessary. No information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease or condition.