Chest x-rays: What to expect, diagnosis & safety

If you’ve ever had chest pain, you know it’s not fun. If you’ve ever had a nasty cough that won’t go away, you understand misery. 

Situations like these that involve the chest often require diagnostic tests like x-rays. Luckily, urgent care centers like urgent care offer quick, painless X-ray services that can identify the problem fast so you can get better.

Here, we’ll review what a chest x-ray shows and common situations that may require a chest x-ray.

What does a chest x-ray show?

If you’re experiencing a chest-related concern and believe a chest x-ray is in your future, you may wonder what a chest x-ray shows.

Chest x-rays allow the doctor to look at the lungs, heart, and other internal structures. This image will help your healthcare providers determine whether fluid is present in the lungs if the size and shape of your heart and lungs are normal, and if there are any broken bones in the chest region. A healthy chest x-ray should show clear lungs, no broken bones and normal size and placement of the organs in the chest.

The following conditions affect healthy lungs; an x-ray can help your doctor diagnose and treat you. 

Lung cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the U.S. A chest x-ray can show cancerous spots or tumors on the lungs. 


Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that causes inflammation and fluid accumulation in the lungs, resulting in breathing difficulties, coughing and chest pain. A chest x-ray can show fluid in the lungs and whether one or both lungs are affected.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a disease that damages the lungs and results in a persistent cough, wheezing and/or shortness of breath. A chest x-ray allows doctors to assess the location and severity of lung damage.  

Ribcage injuries

According to Mayo Clinic, chest x-rays may not show simple rib fractures. However, doctors use them to assess complicated rib fractures, punctured lung(s), and other trauma-related trauma. 


Tuberculosis is a serious disease that affects the lungs. The bacteria that attack the lungs can travel and attack other parts of the body, making diagnosis and treatment incredibly important. A chest x-ray can help diagnose and monitor tuberculosis so the right amount of treatment is sought.

When to get a chest x-ray

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, chest x-rays are the most common x-ray test used to diagnose health problems. 

What health problems result in the need for a chest x-ray? Let’s find out:

Persistent cough

A cough is caused by irritation in the nerves in your airway. A chronic cough, which may require a chest x-ray, lasts 8 weeks or more. 

Sometimes a persistent cough can indicate conditions like pneumonia, which is diagnosable through a chest x-ray. 


Allergies can have a huge impact on the chest and lungs. They can make breathing difficult and uncomfortable and can cause congestion and other symptoms.  

A chest x-ray can help determine if the symptoms that appear to be allergy-related are actually allergies, or something more serious.

Asthma-related breathing

Difficulty breathing can be a symptom of another health problem like asthma. That’s why medical professionals use chest x-rays when a person comes to them with shortness of breath. 

The images help doctors determine whether breathing difficulties are related to a condition like asthma or something more serious.

Chest pain

There are many health conditions that can result in chest pain, including:

  • Digestive disorders, such as acid reflux
  • Heart problems, such as a heart attack 
  • Lung problems, such as pneumonia or a collapsed lung 

Because the intensity and location of chest pain can vary depending on the underlying cause, doctors use chest x-rays to check the structure of the lungs and heart.


A doctor may order a chest x-ray if you have a fever or symptoms of an infection. Some infections can result in damage to the lungs and/or heart. The chest x-ray images allow your healthcare providers to examine the structural integrity of your heart and lungs and determine whether any inflammation or fluid is present.

What to expect if you’re getting a chest x-ray

Do you have a health problem that requires a chest x-ray? Don’t worry. Chest x-rays are easy and can be done in under 30 minutes. 

The U.S. National Library of Medicine outlines the following steps that make up a chest x-ray:

  1. The patient stands in front of the x-ray machine.
  2. The healthcare provider will ask the patient to hold his/her breath while the x-ray is taken.
  3. An image of the chest is taken by the x-ray machine.
  4. The patient will then be asked to stand sideways.
  5. The x-ray machine takes another image.

Your x-ray becomes a permanent part of your medical history so all providers in the Northwell system can easily access them.

Are any risks involved?

In general, chest x-rays are a quick and virtually pain-free procedure, so you have little to worry about.

All x-rays expose you to some degree of radiation. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of radiation you’re exposed to during a medical x-ray is minimal compared to other environmental radiation sources.

Speak to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about the number of x-rays you’ve received or the amount of radiation used.

Does bronchitis show up on x-ray?

A doctor may order a chest x-ray to confirm a diagnosis of bronchitis. Bronchitis is caused by inflammation in the bronchial tubes. If present, this inflammation can be seen on a chest x-ray. 

Visit urgent care for x-rays

If you need help assessing and treating a chest or breathing concern, come see the experts at one of our urgent care locations. You can walk in without an appointment, or save your spot online. Our medical team of MD/DO/PA/NPs are emergency medicine trained, certified and fully capable of attending to your medical needs. We are open 365 days and during holidays. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant