X-rays are an integral part of dentistry. They help your dentist assess almost every aspect of your oral health and dental needs, including whether or not you have a cavity. Dental X-rays are considered safe, and the associated radiation exposure is low, as reported by the Mayo Clinic. Still, you might be wary of the risks involved with radiation exposure and want to make sure you and your family have the facts on dental X-ray dangers.
How Dental X-Rays Work
According to Stanford Health Care, X-rays use electromagnetic beams to take a picture of internal tissue, organs and bones. The Cleveland Clinic notes that dental X-rays work in two ways: intraorally and extraorally, meaning that the image is taken by using a film plate or a dental sensor either inside or outside of your mouth.
Intraoral X-rays are the most common dental X-rays, and they help dentists assess your bone density, the health of your tooth roots and the development of your jaws. A dental X-ray can also help your dentist determine your risk of gum disease and identify signs of tooth decay. Extraoral X-rays are typically taken to assess jaw and bone health. Orthodontists also use these to determine the best way to realign your teeth and bite, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
What to Expect During an X-Ray
The X-ray process is relatively fast and easy. As the Government of Alberta notes, a dental technician may first place a leaded apron and collar on you as a layer of protection from the radiation. For an intraoral X-ray, the technician will then position a piece of plastic or cardboard that holds X-ray film or a digital sensor in your mouth. Once the film or sensor is in place, they will move the machine by your cheek to take the picture. They may adjust the film or sensor to different areas of your mouth to capture multiple images. The images will develop immediately, making it a convenient way for your dentist to better evaluate your mouth and teeth during the visit.
What are the Associated Risks
The American Dental Association (ADA) assures that the risks of radiation exposure during dental X-rays are very low. Some risk is inherent in the procedure; therefore, a guiding principle known as ALARA, or "as low as reasonably achievable," helps dentists determine how to use the technology judiciously and only when necessary, according to the ADA. Before moving forward with an X-ray, your dentist will look at your individual dental needs and overall health.
Here are some of the risks associated with X-rays and general radiation exposure, though it's unlikely you'll encounter any complications during or after a routine dental X-ray.
Radiation Exposure During PregnancyThe risk of radiation exposure to a growing fetus is a factor you can discuss with your dentist beforehand. You can get an X-ray when you're pregnant if it is necessary, according to the ADA. Your dentist will assess your need for one based on the status of your oral health.
"Child-Size" RadiographyChildren can be more sensitive to radiation than adults, reports the Mayo Clinic. Though it's common for children to have cavities and therefore need X-rays, you shouldn't feel uncomfortable asking your dentist about the risks associated with radiation exposure. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children 3 years old and older receive X-rays every six to 12 months if there is a risk or presence of cavities, and no more than every 12 to 24 months if their risk of cavities is low. The ADA also supports "child-size" radiography, in which children's radiation exposure time is limited.
Cancer RiskWhile X-rays are considered carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, according to the American Cancer Society, individuals with low exposure to radiation have not shown an increased risk of cancer. The amount of radiation involved in dental X-rays most likely poses a very minimal risk and does not necessarily result in cancer.
Radiation SicknessHigh doses of radiation can lead to radiation sickness, according to the Mayo Clinic, but this condition only results from extremely high levels of exposure, such as from a nuclear accident. It is very rare and does not develop from routine dental X-rays.
Benefits of Dental X-Rays
It might feel unnerving to get an X-ray taken, given the clunky feel of the mouthpiece, large surrounding machinery and heavy apron, but it's an invaluable diagnostic tool that helps your dentist monitor your health. Dental X-ray dangers are very low compared with how much insight the technology provides about your teeth and mouth. Dental X-rays can spot dental problems that can't always be detected by a physical exam alone.
At your next checkup, ask your dentist if you or your child could benefit from an X-ray, and rest assured that the radiation exposure is low, safe and very unlikely to be harmful.