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Chest Ultrasound

What is a chest ultrasound?

A chest ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to look at the structures and organs in your chest. It can help your health care provider see how well your lungs and heart are working.

A chest ultrasound can look at your lungs, heart, esophagus, mid-chest area (mediastinum), space between the lungs and chest wall (pleural space), and other structures in the chest. Your health care provider may also use ultrasound to see how blood flows through the organs in your chest.

The health care provider uses a device called a transducer to make the images of your chest. The transducer sends out sound waves that bounce off your organs and other structures. The sound waves are too high-pitched for you to hear. The transducer then picks up the bounced sound waves. These are made into pictures of your organs.

Your provider can add another device called a Doppler probe to the transducer. This probe lets your provider hear the sound waves the transducer sends out. He or she can hear how fast blood is flowing through a blood vessel and in which direction it is flowing. No sound or a faint sound may mean that you have a blockage in the flow.

Ultrasound is safe to have during pregnancy because it does not use radiation. It is also safe for people who are allergic to contrast dye because it does not use dye.

Why might I need a chest ultrasound?

You may need a chest ultrasound if your health care provider thinks you have extra fluid in your chest. This is especially true if the amount of fluid is small. The ultrasound can tell your provider if the fluid may be caused by:

  • Cancer, an infection, or an inflammation (exudate)
  • Leaking from blood or lymph vessels (transudate)

A chest ultrasound can also be used to:

  • Look at your heart and its valves. When used for this purpose, the test is called an echocardiogram.
  • Guide a needle to take a sample of tissue (biopsy)
  • Guide a needle to remove fluids from the chest (thoracentesis)
  • See how well your diaphragm moves

Chest ultrasound may be used along with other types of imaging tests to diagnose chest conditions. These other tests include CT scans, X-rays, and MRI.

Your provider may have other reasons to recommend a chest ultrasound.

What are the risks of a chest ultrasound?

A chest ultrasound has no risk from radiation. Most people have no discomfort from the transducer moving across the skin.

You may have risks depending on your specific health condition. Be sure to talk with your provider about any concerns you have before the procedure.

Certain things can make a chest ultrasound less accurate. These include:

  • Severe obesity
  • Barium in your esophagus from a recent upper gastrointestinal barium test

How do I get ready for a chest ultrasound?

  • Your health care provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask him or her any questions you have about the procedure.
  • You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the test. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.
  • You usually do not need to stop eating or drinking before the test. You also usually will not need medicine to help you relax (sedation).
  • Tell your health care provider if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
  • Wear clothing that you can easily take off. Or wear clothing that lets the radiologist reach your chest. The gel put on your skin during the test does not stain clothing, but you may want to older clothing. The gel may not be completely removed from your skin afterward.
  • Follow any other instructions your provider gives you to get ready.

What happens during a chest ultrasound?

You may have a chest ultrasound as an outpatient or as part of your stay in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your health care provider's practices.

Generally, a chest ultrasound follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, or other objects that may get in the way of the scan.
  2. You may be asked to remove clothing. If so, you will be given a gown to wear.
  3. You will lie on the exam table, either on your back or side. Or you will sit with your arms raised and your hands clasped behind your neck. How you are on the table depends on the area that the radiologist needs to look at.
  4. The technologist will put a clear gel on the skin over the area to be looked at.
  5. The technologist will press the transducer against the skin and move it over the area being studied.
  6. You may be asked to shift positions so that the technologist can see other areas. You also may be asked to cough or sniff during the procedure. This will let the technologist see how certain structures in your chest move.
  7. If blood flow is being looked at, you may hear a "whoosh, whoosh" sound when the Doppler probe is used.
  8. Once the test is done, the technologist will wipe off the gel.

A chest ultrasound is not painful. But you may have some discomfort from having to remain still during the test. The gel will also feel cool and wet. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and do the scan as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort.

What happens after a chest ultrasound?

You do not need any special care after a chest ultrasound. Your health care provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • What results to expect and what they mean
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • What the possible side effects or complications are
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure
  • Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
  • What would  happen if you did not have the test or procedure
  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
  • When and how will you get the results
  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Grossman, Neil, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/13/2016
© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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