Chest X-rays produce images of your heart, lungs, blood vessels, airways, and the bones of your chest and spine. Chest X-rays can also reveal fluid in or around your lungs or air surrounding a lung.
If you go to your doctor or the emergency room with chest pain, a chest injury or shortness of breath, you will typically get a chest X-ray. The image helps your doctor determine whether you have heart problems, a collapsed lung, pneumonia, broken ribs, emphysema, cancer or any of several other conditions.
Some people have a series of chest X-rays done over time to track whether a health problem is getting better or worse.
Chest X-rays are a common type of exam. A chest X-ray is often among the first procedures you’ll have if your doctor suspects heart or lung disease. A chest X-ray can also be used to check how you are responding to treatment.
A chest X-ray can reveal many things inside your body, including:
The condition of your lungs. Chest X-rays can detect cancer, infection or air collecting in the space around a lung, which can cause the lung to collapse. They can also show chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema or cystic fibrosis, as well as complications related to these conditions.
Heart-related lung problems. Chest X-rays can show changes or problems in your lungs that stem from heart problems. For instance, fluid in your lungs can be a result of congestive heart failure.
The size and outline of your heart. Changes in the size and shape of your heart may indicate heart failure, fluid around the heart or heart valve problems.
Blood vessels. Because the outlines of the large vessels near your heart — the aorta and pulmonary arteries and veins — are visible on X-rays, they may reveal aortic aneurysms, other blood vessel problems or congenital heart disease.
Calcium deposits. Chest X-rays can detect the presence of calcium in your heart or blood vessels. Calcified nodules in your lungs are most often from an old, resolved infection.
Fractures. Rib or spine fractures or other problems with bone may be seen on a chest X-ray.
Postoperative changes. Chest X-rays are useful for monitoring your recovery after you’ve had surgery in your chest, such as on your heart, lungs or esophagus. Your doctor can look at any lines or tubes that were placed during surgery to check for air leaks and areas of fluid or air buildup.
A pacemaker, defibrillator or catheter. Pacemakers and defibrillators have wires attached to your heart to help control your heart rate and rhythm. Catheters are small tubes used to deliver medications or for dialysis. A chest X-ray usually is taken after placement of such medical devices to make sure everything is positioned correctly.