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X-rays

An X-ray is a test that uses small doses of radiation to take pictures of the inside of your body. They're a good way to look at bones and can show changes caused by cancer or other medical conditions. X-rays can also show changes in other organs, such as the lungs.

You have x-rays in the imaging department of the hospital, taken by a radiographer.

A chest x-ray image

Types

There are different types of tests using x-rays, including:

  • chest x-rays to show fluid, signs of infection, an enlarged heart or tumours in the chest
  • x-rays of the bones to show breaks, degenerative changes, infection or tumours
  • x-rays of the breasts (mammograms)
  • dental x-rays to look at the teeth and jaw
  • real time x-ray screening (fluoroscopy) to help doctors put in stents or wires, or to look at blood vessels (angiography), or to show the outline of body structures (barium x-rays)
  • CT scans are a series of x-rays of an area of the body to build up a 3 dimensional (3D) picture

What happens

Before your x-ray

There is no special preparation for an x-ray. You can eat and drink normally beforehand. Take your medicines as normal.

When you arrive, the radiographer might ask you to change into a hospital gown and take off any jewellery.

During your x-ray

You usually have a chest x-ray standing up against the x-ray machine. If you can’t stand you can have it sitting or lying on the x-ray couch. For x-rays of other areas of the body the best position is usually lying down on the x-ray couch.

The radiographer lines the machine up to make sure it's in the right place. You must keep very still.

The radiographer then goes behind a screen. They can still see and hear you. They might ask you to hold your breath for a few seconds while they take the x-ray. 

X-rays are painless and quick. You won’t feel anything.

You usually have more than one x-ray taken from different angles. The whole process may take a few minutes.

After your x-ray

After the x-ray you can get dressed and go home or back to work. 

Possible risks

The amount of radiation you receive from an x-ray is small and doesn't make you feel unwell.

The risk of the radiation causing any problems in the future is very small. The benefits of finding out what is wrong outweigh any risk there may be from radiation.

Talk to your doctor if you are worried about the possible effects of x-rays.

The ovaries and testicles are particularly sensitive to radiation and you may have lead blocks to shield them if they are in the x-ray field.

It is very important to tell your doctor if you think you may be pregnant, as the x-rays could affect your developing baby. If you can’t delay the x-ray, the radiographer may be able to shield the baby with a lead block.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. Your doctor may be able to tell you what they saw straight after the procedure.

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 for information and support. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

More information

We have more information on tests, treatment and support if you have been diagnosed with cancer.

Last reviewed: 
18 Dec 2018
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    L Doherty and S Lister
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Exposure to ionising radiation from medical imaging: safety advice
    Public Health England, 2014

  • X-rays: what the nurse needs to know
    R Myatt
    Nursing Standard, 2017. Volume 32, Issue 1, Pages 39 - 43

  • Chest X-Rays for Medical Students
    C Clarke and A Dux
    John Wiley & Sons, 2017

Information and help

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