How Chest Xrays Are Used To Diagnose Pneumonia

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What you need to know about pneumonia 

Pneumonia is a term used to describe an infection of the lungs. This infection causes inflammation of the air sacs, also known as alveoli, which provide oxygen to our blood. Pneumonia not only causes inflammation of the alveoli but can also cause fluid or pus build-up in these sacs, leading to the symptoms like coughing, fever, breathlessness, and chills. 

Pneumonia can be split into different variants caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The resulting lung infection can range from mild to serious and, in the worst-case scenario, can cause death. Pneumonia is most serious for infants and children two years or younger, people over 65 years old, and people with existing health problems or weakened immune systems. 

However, if pneumonia is diagnosed early, the likelihood of serious infection and hospitalization is low. 

One of the main tools used for the diagnosis of pneumonia is a chest X-ray. Pulse oximetry¹ is often used to measure how much oxygen is in your blood, while other tests, such as blood tests, sputum cultures, bronchoscopy, and pleural effusion culture, are sometimes performed to check for the presence of an infection.

How X-rays work to diagnose pneumonia

An X-ray is an image that shows the inside of the body. The procedure itself is quick and painless and requires almost no preparation or aftercare. Due to the ability of an X-ray to visualize the inside of the body, it is an effective way to help detect or diagnose a wide range of conditions, from broken bones to heart conditions, and even pneumonia. 

X-rays use a type of radiation that can pass through the body. These X-rays can't be seen by the naked eye, and you cannot feel them as they pass through the body. 

As an X-ray machine creates the image, the energy from the X-rays (the name refers to the type of radiation used) moving through your body is absorbed at different rates by different parts of the body, like muscles, bones, and organs. A detector on the other side of the body works to collect the X-rays after they've passed through, and this is then turned into the image.

Dense parts of your body, such as bone, show as white on an X-ray as the radiation cannot pass through dense tissue and bone. For softer tissue, like your lungs,  X-rays pass through with little problem and show up as darker areas on the X-ray image.

To diagnose pneumonia, the infected tissue will show denser areas and therefore appear as white spots in the darker background of the lungs. These white spots, called infiltrates, which will be identified by your radiologist and doctor, will then be used to diagnose pneumonia and determine how severe the infection is. 

How can you prepare for an x-ray?

X-rays are carried out in hospital radiology departments or at an outpatient radiology clinic. There, radiographers, who are trained specialists, will conduct your X-ray. For an X-ray, little preparation is needed. However, it is suggested that you take the following steps: 

  • Wear comfortable clothes that can be easily switched for a hospital gown

  • Remove any metal objects from your body, such as jewelry.

What to expect 

For a chest X-ray, you will be positioned by the radiographer to ensure accurate images can be taken. It is important to remain still while the image is being taken, though this does not take long.

Risks of a chest X-ray

Although chest X-rays use radiation, there is an extremely low risk of overexposure to radiation during the procedure. However, in some instances, if you are pregnant, for example, a chest X-ray should not be utilized. In this case, another imaging method, such as an MRI or ultrasound, may be used.

The lowdown

Overall, X-rays are among the most utilized techniques for diagnosing pneumonia. Not only is this technique safe and easy to use, but it is also able to detect the severity of pneumonia as well as whether your pneumonia is affecting one lung or both.

FAQ

What type of X-ray is used for pneumonia?

A chest X-ray. This type of X-ray provides the doctor with a clear view of the lungs, indicating the presence of pneumonia for diagnosis. 

Do chest X-rays always show pneumonia?

Pneumonia is not always detectable through X-rays. This may be due to the disease being in its early stages or because it is affecting a part of the lung not easily visualized by the X-ray.

What other tests can detect pneumonia?

A variety of tests can be used to diagnose pneumonia. Although X-rays are one diagnostic tool for detecting pneumonia, they are not the only method used. Other tests can be used or may help for a pneumonia diagnosis, such as sputum cultures, chest CT scans, a bronchoscopy, or a pleural fluid culture, to name a few.

  1. Pulse oximetry | American Thoracic Association

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