Are Dental X Rays Dangerous?

Are you concerned about the effects of dental X-rays on your health? Check out this guide from Flossy to learn about any possible risks.

April 6, 2022
Are Dental X Rays Dangerous?

Dental X-rays (otherwise known as radiographs) are in-depth images of your teeth and gums, allowing your dentist to check for tooth decay and any other problems. Naturally, this may lead you to feel confused about whether you should be getting dental X-rays. 

To get to the bottom of this issue, keep reading this guide from Flossy on how X-rays work, why they’re so important, and whether they have an impact on your health.


No, Dental X-Rays Are Not Dangerous

While common sense tells us to avoid unnecessary radiation, studies have found no link between dental X-rays and cancer. 

For this reason, it’s best not to let fear play a role in your dental health. It’s not possible to detect certain forms of dental decay without dental X-rays, which makes getting an X-ray—when recommended by your dentist—very important. 

Like many medical procedures, dental X-rays come with a small amount of risk. It’s true that a dental X-ray exposes you to a small amount of radiation, some of which will be absorbed by your body. However, the radiation absorbed during a dental X-ray is comparable to what you would get from one day of regular sun exposure

However, there are many upsides to dental X-rays. Most importantly, your dentist will be able to see bones and tissue that can’t be observed with the naked eye. This has many upsides, as unaddressed tooth decay can lead to many problems down the line. 


Why Pregnancy Is an Exception

Of course, there is one exception to this rule: Pregnancy. Women who may be pregnant should avoid dental X-rays, as electromagnetic radiation is not safe for developing fetuses. For this reason, it’s important to discuss your health when meeting with your dentist.


What Are the Concerns About Dental X-Rays?

There have been some radiation concerns about X-rays—albeit to differing amounts—about their safety because dental X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. 

It’s important to know that dental X-rays use a very small amount of radiation—similar to what most people get from daily sun exposure. 

However, while low doses of radiation are safe, the effects of radiation are cumulative. So, in theory, constant exposure to low amounts of radiation can be harmful. This theory has led some people to bring up concerns about cancer risk from dental X-rays—especially thyroid cancer. 

This is because the thyroid—located in the neck—is impacted by the radiation from dental X-rays. However, dental X-rays are taken with a lead vest placed over your chest, which should protect you from unnecessary radiation. 

Aside from that, there are no conclusive studies linking dental X-rays to the development of thyroid cancer. 


What Are Dental X-Rays?

Simply put, X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Because of their high energy, they can pass through most objects, which includes the human body. Dentists use X-rays to get a better view of your teeth and gums. 

Because your teeth contain the incredibly dense mineral calcium—amongst many other minerals—they absorb less radiation. For this reason, your teeth show up whiter on the radiograph in contrast to the rest of your mouth. 

This is how it’s possible to quickly identify tooth decay, which are areas of your teeth that are beginning to lose important minerals.

Several types of dental X-rays provide images of your mouth. Some of these include:

  • Bitewing: To get this type of X-ray, you bite down on a piece of X-ray paper, which gives your dentist an overview of any potential cavities between your teeth—something that might be missed with a manual exam. This type of X-ray exam is the most common. 
  • Occlusal: This is a large type of X-ray that is done when your jaw is closed. This allows your dentist to view either the entire top or bottom of your jaw. It’s used to examine the alignment of your upper and bottom teeth, which is especially important in children who are still developing. 
  • Panoramic: This type of X-ray involves using a special machine to get a full view of your mouth, which includes the upper and lower jaw, the joints, and—of course—all your teeth. This is used for checking your wisdom teeth or checking for fractures, infections, or tumors. 


What Happens During a Dental X-Ray?

You will be positioned so that your mouth is next to the X-ray machine. The machine’s rays travel through your body and are absorbed in different amounts by your teeth, gums, and cheeks. 

Your dentist should provide a lead vest that protects your body from radiation. You will also be asked to bite down on a type of paper called an X-ray film. While you bite down, your dentist snaps images of your mouth—a process that takes just a few minutes. 

Once the radiographs are ready, your dentist reviews them on a computer screen, making sure to go over any abnormalities with you. 

If they discover any problems, then they will discuss the next steps for treatment. If there are no abnormalities, then it will likely be several years before your next dental X-ray procedure. 


Guidelines for Dental X-Rays

While the relationship between dental X-rays and cancer has not been established, it’s still a good idea to avoid unnecessary dental X-rays. 


Proper Evalutation for X-Rays

It’s important for dentists to evaluate every patient to determine if an X-ray is necessary. That’s because every person’s risk of developing tooth decay is associated with individual factors such as age, general health, and lifestyle factors. 

Those who experience many health problems or have a higher-than-normal risk for cavities may need more frequent X-rays. But if you’re not experiencing any problems, then it’s less likely that you need to take dental X-rays every year. 

Indeed, most healthy adults should take a dental X-ray every three to five years (or every couple of years for children). 


How Long Between Dental X-Rays?

While it may seem like a long time to go without an X-ray, the interval is determined by how quickly cavities can develop. 

For a healthy adult, it takes at least two years for a cavity to form, while it may be about a year for this to happen to children. For this reason, more frequent X-rays to check for cavities are not necessary.

If you are a new patient, then your dentist may recommend X-rays to examine your current oral health and to have a reference point for future changes. 


Follow Proper Dental X-Ray Safety

Last but not least, make sure that you wear a lead “bib” or apron when getting your dental X-rays. Because your neck is especially sensitive to radiation, it’s important to protect it—even if you get infrequent X-rays. 

It’s important to find a dentist who follows these guidelines. Indeed, many dentists give out dental X-rays much more often than is necessary. While it may have some protective effects, too-frequent X-rays should be avoided. 

However, if you’re switching dentists and have X-rays taken recently, then it’s a much better idea to ask your former dentist to forward the radiographs so that you don’t have to go through the procedure again. 


Conclusion

Dental X-rays pick up on dental problems that aren’t visible to the naked eye, which allows them to be identified and treated quickly—before they lead to more serious conditions. 

However, taking X-rays requires using a low amount of electromagnetic radiation, which has some people concerned about their impact on health. Indeed, some have brought up concerns about the relationship between dental X-rays and possible DNA damage. 

On the other hand, many dental professionals believe that taking X-rays is important for identifying dental issues that can be problematic down the line. 

If you’ve never had a dental X-ray (or can’t remember what it’s like), then there’s nothing to worry about. Getting dental X-rays is quick and painless. 

There’s no special preparation required—aside from brushing your teeth and avoiding food before the procedure. This ensures that your dentist has a clear view of your teeth and gums.

While dental X-rays are safe, it’s not necessary to get them every time you visit your dentist. If you experience any dental problems, then you might need more frequent X-rays. But if you have great oral health, then it’s better to let several years go by in between your X-rays. 

All in all, it’s important to be assessed by a skilled dentist before getting an X-ray. At Flossy, we have a network of professionals that will provide an in-depth assessment of your oral health and take dental X-rays only when necessary.


Sources: 

Where Does the "X" in "X-ray" Come From? | Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Radiation Worries for Children in Dentists' Chairs | New York Times 

Radiation Dose in X-Ray and CT Exams | Radiology Info