Infiltrate On Chest X-ray

Infiltrate is a term commonly used on X-rays to describe abnormalities in the lung.  The term is descriptive and does not provide a specific diagnosis in many cases.

What does infiltrate mean?

Infiltrate describes an abnormality on chest X-ray which looks like something is in the lung that shouldn’t be there.  An infiltrate is usually whiter then the surrounding lung and not well defined.  It’s not a very precise term and does not provide a specific diagnosis.

What does lung infiltrate look like on a scan?

Its one or multiple areas that are whiter then the normal surrounding dark air filled lung.   These areas are usually not well defined unlike a mass which is.

What causes lung infiltrates? 

Many conditions can cause infiltrates such as: infection, inflamed lung, edema, tumor, scarring, collapsed lung tissue to name some.  We can not tell the difference in many cases.

What’s a common cause of lung infiltrates?

In my experience, an infiltrate most commonly represents an infection such as a pneumonia. But many other possibilities exist to include cancer.

The ordering clinical doctor will use the patient’s clinical information and any other testing along with the x ray to come up with best diagnosis.

For example, a patient who has a cough, fever and an infiltrate on chest X-ray will most likely have a pneumonia. Another patient who is a smoker with a chronic cough and an infiltrate on chest X-ray may have cancer.

Symptoms of an infiltrate

The symptoms will depend on the cause.  For example, scarring may have no symptoms.  Infection may be associated with fever and cough.

What is done once an infiltrate is found on chest X-ray?

Your doctor will have to decide what diagnosis is most likely based on the radiology report, any clinical history, and further testing.  Further imaging with CT and specialty referral will be needed in some cases.

Is an infiltrate dangerous? (or cancerous)

It can be depending on what’s causing it.  We can’t know for sure in many cases just by looking at the chest X-ray.  Sometimes a follow up exam will be needed to see if an infiltrate goes away after antibiotic treatment for pneumonia.   If it doesn’t, then it may represent something else like cancer.

What further testing is needed when we find an infiltrate on chest X-ray?

A CT scan is ordered in some cases.  This can give us a closer look at the infiltrate on the chest x-ray.  We can give a more precise diagnosis.

Old studies are also helpful.  Those abnormalities which have been stable for a long time are less concerning then those which are new.

A PET CT scan can sometimes be done when there is concern for cancer.

A biopsy of the abnormality may be needed when there is suspicion for cancer.  

Treatment of an infiltrate

The treatment of an infiltrate will depend on what’s causing it.  An infection will be treated with antibiotics.  Scar tissue will not need to be treated. A cancer may need surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Infiltrate On Chest X-ray: summary

An infiltrate is a descriptive term of an abnormality on chest X-ray.  It gives us little to no information about the diagnosis.  The diagnosis is often reached by combining all known information such as symptoms and any other testing.   The treatment of an infiltrate will depend on what the cause is.


Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider.

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