What You Need to Know Before Saying Yes to a Dental X-Ray


Oral health has a tremendous effect on the health of the body as a whole. Healthy teeth enable you to eat a variety of food types, which is essential to a healthy diet. Regular visits to the dentist help ensure continued oral health and dental x-rays play an important role in helping dentists care for your teeth.

Before you say yes to a dental x-ray, it helps to know why dental x-rays are a necessary part of caring for your oral health. While x-rays of any kind do carry certain risks, understanding these risks in light of the considerable benefits dental x-rays provide can help put your mind at ease the next time you go to the dentist.

How Dental X-Rays Work

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation that produces light. The electromagnetic spectrum spans a range of different wavelengths ranging from short wavelengths to long wavelengths. X-rays consist of short wavelengths, a range that lies outside of what the human eye can see. The shorter wavelength accounts for why x-rays can photograph the body’s internal workings.

Like other forms of light, x-rays pass through certain types of surfaces and reflect off of other surface types. For instance, x-rays pass through the body’s soft tissues, such as skin and various organs, meaning soft areas are unable to absorb these shorter wavelengths. Subsequently, x-rays can’t photograph these areas.

Bones, however, are made up of denser tissue, so bones can absorb the type of short wavelengths that x-rays put off. This accounts for why dentists use x-rays to see aspects of the teeth and jaw that the human eye can’t see.


Teeth sit inside a small, confined space (the mouth) that makes it difficult to see the surface of each tooth let alone the roots and jawline. Likewise, the human eye can only see so much of the visible surfaces so fine cracks and small cavities can easily be missed.

Dental x-rays not only make teeth more visible, but can also magnify the image. Considering the number of types of problems that can develop with teeth, uses for dental x-rays are many.

First and foremost, x-rays allow dentists to see the overall condition of your teeth in terms of bone density as well as any developing structural problems. Other problems made visible by x-rays include:

  • Abnormal jaw placement
  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Abscesses
  • Growths, such as tumors and cysts

In effect, dental x-rays not only help dentists spot potential problems, but also play an important role in preventative oral health.

Types of Dental X-Rays

Dentists can choose from a range of different x-ray options depending on the purpose at hand. In general, there are two main types of x-rays dentists use: intraoral and extraoral.

Intraoral x-rays reveal different aspects of the teeth. Extraoral x-rays show potential problems developing in the jaw and skull.

Intraoral X-Rays

  • Bitewing. According to the University of Texas Health, bitewing x-rays show details of the upper and lower teeth in different areas of the mouth. Bitewings reveal each tooth from the crown or topside to the top of the jawbone. This type of x-ray allows dentists to see areas of decay as well as changes in bone density. Dentists can also use bitewing x-rays to determine the needed size for a crown or bridge fitting.
  • Periapical. Periapical x-rays reveal the whole tooth from the top all the way down to where the tooth attaches into the jawbone. This type of x-ray is used to detect changes in the tooth root as well as in the jawbone’s structure.
  • Occlusal. Occlusal x-rays allow dentists to view an arch of teeth, such as an upper denture, to determine its fitting and placement.

Extraoral X-rays

  • Panoramic. Panoramic x-rays show the teeth in the upper and lower jaw in a single image. Dentists use this type of x-ray to determine the positions of existing teeth and also emerging teeth. Panoramic x-rays also revel impacted teeth and can help in diagnosing tumors.
  • Cephalometric. Cephalometric x-rays take an image of an entire side of the head to see how the teeth sit inside the jaw. A cephalometric allows dentists to determine areas where your teeth may need realignment.
  • Cone Beam CT. Cone Beam CTs create three dimensional images of the teeth, nerves, jawbone and soft tissues. This type of x-ray is commonly used for tooth implant procedures to determine tooth placement. It can also be used to evaluate tumors and cysts in the face and mouth.
  • Computed Tomography. Dental computed tomography allows dentists to look at the interior structures of the bones that make up the face in 3-D. It’s commonly used to detect tumors, cysts and bone fractures.
  • Tomograms. Tomograms take an image of a layer of the mouth while blurring out other layers. These types of x-rays come in handy in cases where structures or areas in the mouth overlap and prevent a clear view of underlying areas.

Standard Practices

When using dental x-rays, dentists follow standard practices that dictate what conditions warrant an x-ray and how often x-rays should be given. Here’s a brief overview of these practices.


Standard practices only allow x-rays to be taken in cases where specific information is needed and there’s no other way to obtain it. Dentists must select the type of x-ray that can produce a quality image without exposing the patient to unnecessarily high levels of radiation.

Dentists must also ensure any staff responsible for taking x-rays have the required certifications for handling an x-ray machine. Staff must also be thoroughly trained in how to use each piece of equipment.

Dentists and staff are also required to drape patients in appropriate shielding to reduce x-ray radiation exposure.


X-rays, in general, pose little risk as far as radiation exposure is concerned, but repeated exposures can increase the risk of developing health problems. For these reasons, standard practices include limits for how often x-rays should be taken.

A range of factors help determine how often your dentist will take x-rays, some of which are:

  • Age
  • Past dental work
  • Current condition of your mouth
  • Presence of gum disease
  • Decaying bone structures

Patients who see the dentist regularly and take good care of their teeth should only require bitewing x-rays every two or three years for preventative purposes. Other more extensive x-rays may need to be done every three to five years to ensure the ongoing health of teeth roots and the jawbone.

For children, teeth are constantly changing so a more frequent x-ray schedule may be used. Recommended frequency for children is every one to two years.

Ultimately, a dentist’s decision to take an x-ray must be based on patient-specific needs and not general procedure.

The Need for X-Rays in Adult Dental Care

By the time you reach adulthood, your teeth have put in a lot of work so ongoing maintenance and preventative care are important. Dental x-rays provide dentists with valuable tools for accomplishing these ends.

Dental decay is a big concern, especially areas of decay that are hidden. Decay can develop most anywhere, including underneath crowns and old fillings. The sooner your dentist can find problem areas the better the chance of saving a tooth. Early detection also helps reduce the amount of restorative dental care you’ll need down the road.

Other ways dental x-rays are an important part of adult dental care include:

  • Reveal abscesses or infections that develop along the teeth and gumline
  • Shows any resulting bone loss from gum disease
  • Allows dentists to detect problematic changes in root canals over time

The Need for X-Rays in Child Dental Care

As children grow and develop, their teeth change as primary or “baby” teeth make room for permanent teeth. Dentists use dental x-rays as tools to monitor how a child’s teeth are developing so potential problems can be addressed early on.

A few ways dentists use x-rays in child dental care include:

  • Ensure a child’s mouth is large enough to accommodate incoming, permanent teeth
  • Track the growth of wisdom teeth
  • Detect areas of decay
  • Detect signs of gum disease

Are Dental X-Rays Safe?

All types of x-rays use radiation, so there’s a question of safety to consider. In effect, the level of risk associated with dental x-rays depends on the type of x-ray used. Overall, the amount of radiation involved with any one x-ray procedure is very small, according to the U. S. Food & Drug Administration.

Bitewings, the most often used dental x-ray, delivers an estimated .005 millisieverts of radiation. This amount is comparable to the amount radiation exposure you receive from a day’s worth of sunshine. Other daily activities also expose you to radiation, some of which include:

  • Microwaves
  • Cell phones
  • Riding in an airplane

While there’s always a certain degree of risk associated with x-rays, the benefits far outweigh the risks where your oral health is concerned.

Precautions You Can Take

If the idea of radiation exposure from dental x-rays still makes you uneasy, there are certain precautions your dentist can take to help reduce your risk of exposure.

Discuss your concerns with your dentist. You can also ask that he or she use the lowest radiation setting possible for any one x-ray procedure. Also, it helps to keep in mind that most dentists use leaded coverings during x-ray procedures as a safety measure. Leaded coverings protect your body from radiation exposure.

Ultimately, the risk of developing serious dental problems increases exponentially when dentists cannot identify problem issues. In this light, the risks associated with dental x-rays are worth it when the health of your teeth and body are on the line.

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