X-rays

An x-ray is a test that uses small amounts (doses) of radiation to take pictures of the inside of your body. They are 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 usually have x-rays in the imaging department of the hospital, taken by a radiographer. But in an emergency they are sometimes done on the ward. 

Photograph showing a chest x-ray

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 such as lung cancer
  • x-rays of the bones to show breaks (fractures), 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

There is no special preparation for a standard x-ray. You can eat and drink normally beforehand. You take your medicines as normal. If you are having another type of x-ray such as:

  • a barium x-ray
  • a CT scan
  • an angiogram

You might need to stop eating and drinking for a certain amount of time before the test. Your appointment letter will give you instructions you need to follow.

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 to prevent blurring of the picture.

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 might 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

An x-ray is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests it has some possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.

Radiation

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-ray.

Fertility and pregnancy

The ovaries and testicles are particularly sensitive to radiation. 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. 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 apron or block.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. 

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact 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.

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical and Cancer Nursing Procedures (10th edition)
    S Lister, J Hofland and H Grafton
    Wiley Blackwell, 2020

  • X-rays- What patients need to know
    International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) website, accessed November 2022

  • X-rays and their safety
    The British Institute of Radiology website, accessed November 2022

  • Radiation
    Health and Safety Executive website, accessed November 2022

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

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
07 Nov 2022
Next review due: 
07 Nov 2025