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Dental X-Rays: What to Expect

Virtually everyone who visits the dentist will have X-rays taken at some point. Dental X-rays involve passing electromagnetic radiation through the jaw to produce images of the structures inside.

On an X-ray image, teeth, bones, fillings, and restorations appear lighter than the background, because they block more of the radiation than the surrounding soft tissue. Decayed areas or abscesses in the bone around teeth appear darker than healthy teeth, because the damaged teeth contain less radiation-blocking material.X-rays are valuable for uncovering problems in places that aren’t readily visible to the eye. X-ray images can reveal cavities inside and between the teeth, wisdom teeth that have failed to erupt, and bone deterioration below the gum line.

Keeping Exposure Risk Low

Because exposure to high levels of radiation can cause skin burns, cancer, and birth defects, some people fear getting dental X-rays. Today, though, the risk from X-rays is relatively low, thanks to improvements in technology and better regulation of the process. For example, modern dental X-ray machines narrowly focus radiation beams so that only your teeth are exposed and can also create the image more quickly than used to be the case, reducing your radiation exposure.

One breakthrough is a digital device that saves images in electronic files rather than on film. These high-resolution pictures require as little as 10 percent of the amount of radiation needed to create a traditional X-ray image.

Still, as a precaution, your dentist should cover your body with a lead apron when taking X-rays of your teeth. This prevents up to 94 percent of the radiation from reaching your chest, abdomen, and reproductive organs. For most X-rays, you can also wear a lead collar to shield your thyroid gland.

How Often They’re Needed

How often you need dental X-rays depends on the state of your dental health. Adults with no oral health problems are advised to have X-rays every two to three years. People who are at high risk for cavities or have a history of advanced gum disease may need X-rays more frequently. If you change dentists or see a specialist, bring your X-rays with you, so your new dentist won’t need to duplicate the existing films.


Source: Dental Health for Adults: A Guide to Protecting Your Teeth and Gums. Copyright © by Harvard University. All rights reserved.

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