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Image showing a chest X-ray

Image showing a chest X-ray
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3-minute read

What is an x-ray?

An x-ray uses radiation to create a picture of the inside of the body. The x-ray beam is absorbed differently by various structures in the body, such as bones and soft tissues, and this is used to create the image. X-ray is also known as radiography.

Types of x-ray

There are several types of x-ray:

  • plain radiography, or plain x-ray
  • computed tomography, or CT scanning
  • fluoroscopy — which produces moving images
  • mammography — an x-ray of the breasts
  • angiography — an x-ray of the blood vessels

When is an x-ray done?

X-rays can be used to diagnose disease and injury, including:

  • bone conditions — such as fractures, dislocations, bone infections or arthritis
  • chest conditions — such as pneumonia, collapsed lung or heart failure
  • cancer
  • blockages of the bowel
  • detection of foreign objects

X-rays should be avoided in pregnancy.

How is an x-ray done?

A plain x-ray is painless and usually takes less than 15 minutes. It can be done in a hospital or private radiology practice.

During the procedure you’ll be asked to lie, sit or stand, depending on the part of the body being x-rayed. It is important not to move during the x-ray. A radiologist will then assess the images and send a report to your doctor.

What is contrast dye?

Contrast dye is a substance that is sometimes used during plain x-ray, CT scanning, angiography or other tests. It helps to enhance the contrast in x-ray images, making them easier to read. It may be given to you orally or by injection.

Commonly used contrast dyes are iodine-containing contrast medium and gadolinium contrast medium.

Patients with kidney problems face greater risks when having contrast medium than other people. If you have kidney problems and need an x-ray with contrast medium, talk to your doctor first.

Some people are allergic to contrast dye. Most people who have allergic reactions have mild ones, although a severe allergic reaction is possible.

Are there risks with x-rays?

Yes. An x-ray uses a small amount of radiation to create an image. Some types of x-ray, such as CT scanning and angiography, use higher doses of radiation than plain x-rays.

That small amount of radiation might give people having x-rays a very slightly increased risk of developing cancer some years later.

But there is also the risk that comes from not diagnosing a health condition.

On the whole, it is wise to have x-rays that are necessary, but not ones that won’t help with treatment. Children should have alternatives to x-ray, such as an ultrasound, when possible.

X-rays and pregnancy

In pregnant women, x-rays expose the foetus to small amounts of radiation. The dose used is so low that it is not usually a concern, however it is best to avoid exposing the mother’s abdomen to any radiation if possible.

A different test may need to be used.

How do I prepare for an x-ray?

Preparing for an x-ray is simple:

  • Bring the referral that your doctor gave you.
  • Bring along any x-rays you’ve had before of similar areas.
  • Tell the radiographer if you might be pregnant.
  • Tell the radiographer if you have kidney problems or have allergies to contrast material.
  • Be prepared to remove your jewellery and change into a hospital gown if needed.
  • Follow any instructions given to you by your doctor or radiographer.

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Last reviewed: August 2019

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