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What is an X-ray?

In medicine, “imaging” is the term used for any method to take pictures of bones and organs inside the body. Many imaging modalities use x-ray radiation whichcan help your health care provider find the cause of a medical problem. For example, x-rays may be used to find a tumor, kidney stones , or a developmental problem.

An x-ray (or conventional radiology) is a form of radiation produced by special machines that take pictures of the inside of your body. Structures that are dense, like bones, look white on the film. Structures that contain air, like your lungs, look black. Muscle, fat and fluid appear as different shades of gray.

Since soft tissues, like the kidneys, ureters, and bladder are not easily seen with x-ray, contrast agents or dyes can be used to help identify those structures. These dyes are injected directly into the organ or into a vein before the x-ray is taken. The dye helps your doctors see the shape of the urinary tract and soft tissue organs better on film.

Procedure

The x-ray test is done in a hospital’s radiology or urology department, or in a health care provider's office. A radiology technician usually takes the x-ray, with guidance from a doctor.

You may be asked to remove parts of your clothing and jewelry to create a clear image. Depending on the type of test, you may be asked to stand, lie down, sit or assume a combination of these positions. A lead shield may be used to cover parts of your body. This shield can absorb some x-rays and protect areas of your body that are not being imaged. You may be asked to stay still and hold your breath for a few seconds at different stages of the test.

Most x-rays are simple and take only a few minutes. Results can be seen and discussed right away. Sometimes, more complex x-rays are needed. These tests can last anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours.

Risks

Some people have reactions to the contrast agent, though the risks are low. Allergic reactions can include hives, itching, nausea, vomiting, headache, and dizziness. There can also be some risk of kidney damage from the dye for people with certain conditions. It helps to talk with your doctor about your health history before using a contrast agent.

If you are pregnant or may be pregnant, you should let your doctor know before having an x-ray. X-ray radiation can be dangerous for a fetus.

More Information

What are the dangers of an x-ray test?

  • X-ray tests expose the body to radiation. Fortunately, modern x-ray equipment uses much smaller amounts of radiation than in the past.
  • If your doctor recommends a test that uses a contrast dye, tell your doctor if you are allergic to contrast materials, iodine, or seafood. This may put you at a higher risk for a reaction.
  • Radiation can be dangerous for a fetus. Tell your doctor if you are, or think you may be pregnant.