In some cases, chest X-rays can detect signs of heart failure, such as an enlarged heart, alongside various lung problems. These signs can indicate more serious complications. However, doctors do not use chest X-rays to diagnose heart failure.

A collage depicting a chest X-ray showing signs of heart failure -2Share on Pinterest
Design by MNT; Photography by muratseyit/Getty Images & RAJAAISYA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Moreover, people can have heart failure without any signs of it appearing on a chest X-ray.

This article looks at how heart failure shows up on chest X-rays. It also will discuss X-ray findings that might indicate heart failure and detail their clinical significance.

Finally, the article will describe how X-rays can detect worsening heart failure, alongside the treatment and outlook for this condition.

Doctors can use chest X-rays to find some internal signs of heart failure. However, as a 2021 study explains, doctors do not use chest X-rays to diagnose the condition, as more effective diagnostic tests are available.

According to a 2016 study, doctors employ a range of techniques to diagnose heart failure.

Learn more about how doctors diagnose heart failure.

Radiographic features

Scientists have uncovered several common radiographic features of heart failure. Many of these features affect the lungs.

According to a recent review, these features derive from changes in blood pressure within the heart. This causes increased pressure within the lungs’ blood vessels, leading to problems in and around the alveoli.

If doctors find these features on someone’s chest X-ray, the individual could have heart failure. The findings include:

  • Pulmonary venous congestion: This occurs when the proportion of blood vessels in the upper lungs increases compared with blood vessels in the lower lungs.
  • Cardiomegaly: People with heart failure may have an atypically large heart, which scientists call this cardiomegaly.
  • Kerley B lines: The lungs contain several separate lobes. On an X-ray, Kerley B lines indicate swollen fissures within the lungs that travel between these lobes.
  • Alveolar edema: Alveoli are minuscule air sacs within the lungs. Alveolar edema is when these sacs fill up with fluid and can arise in one lung or both.
  • Pleural effusions: A pleural effusion is when there is excessive fluid between the pleura. Pleura are thin membranes that form a barrier between the lungs and the chest cavity.

Although unsuitable for diagnostic purposes, these radiologic features can provide important information.

A 2021 article notes that there is evidence that in people with heart failure, the presence of these features tends to indicate a more negative outlook. In particular, an increase in these features correlates with a higher mortality rate.

Everybody is different, so every chest X-ray will look slightly different. Nevertheless, there are some important similarities between the chest X-rays of many people with heart failure.

Scientists sometimes group these regarding the below stages of heart failure complications.

Stage 1: Redistribution

In this context, redistribution refers to a resharing of blood flow within the lungs.

During this stage, there will be more blood vessels in the upper lungs than there should be. Cardiomegaly can also occur during the redistribution stage, and chest X-rays can show these changes.

Stage 2: Interstitial edema

X-rays can show Kerley B lines. These will display as short, horizontal lines around the outermost areas of the lungs.

The X-ray may also showperibronchial cuffing, which refers to a haziness or increased density around the bronchioles. Bronchioles are small air tubes within the lungs.

This indicates that fluid is beginning to gather around the lungs. Scientists call this interstitial edema.

Stage 3: Alveolar edema

In chest X-rays, alveolar edema show as small and dark circular figures.

During this stage, pleural effusion may also occur. If a person is upright, chest X-rays can easily spot this.

Pleural effusion will show up as a uniformly white region, which has a concave upper border. The white region will begin at the lower chest.

Doctors have several methods for treating the condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these include:

  • adhering to a low sodium diet
  • maintaining daily physical activity
  • drinking less liquid
  • medication
  • surgery, including heart transplant

Although the outlook for heart failure will vary from person to person, it is a serious condition. Among people who require hospitalization for heart failure, the mortality rate within 5 years of hospital admission is 42%.

However, treatments can lower the mortality rate and help improve the quality of life of those with heart failure.

Heart failure is when the heart cannot pump enough blood. This can lead to important changes to the heart and lungs.

An enlarged heart is one radiographic feature of heart failure, which can also lead to changes within the lungs. These include increased numbers of blood vessels within the upper lungs, lung fissures, and various kinds of fluid buildup.

Chest X-rays can detect all of these complications of heart failure. However, doctors do not use X-rays to diagnose the condition, preferring techniques such as blood tests. Additionally, someone can have heart failure without having these complications.

The presence of heart failure complications may indicate a more negative outlook. However, some heart failure treatments can significantly improve this.