Benefits and safety
Dental radiographs (often called x-rays) are an important part of your dental care. Along with an oral examination, they provide your dentist with a more complete view of what’s happening in your mouth.
BENEFITS OF DENTAL RADIOGRAPHS
A dental radiograph gives your dentist a picture of your hard tissues (teeth and bones) and the soft tissues that surround your teeth and jawbones. For example, dental radiographs may help your dentist see
- caries (tooth decay) that develops between the teeth or under restorations (fillings);
- diseases in the bone;
- periodontal (gum) disease;
- infections that develop under your gums;
- some types of tumors.
Dental radiographs can alert your dentist to changes in your hard and soft tissues. In children, radiographs allow the dentist to see how their teeth and jawbones are developing. Like medical radiographs, dental radiographs allow your dentist to evaluate any injuries to your face and mouth.
Dental radiographs can help your dentist identify diseases and developmental problems before they become serious health issues. Early detection of an infection or injury also can limit or prevent further damage to other areas of the mouth.
SAFETY OF DENTAL RADIOGRAPHS
Some people wonder if dental radiographs are safe because they expose the patient to radiation. Several factors and practices work together to make dental radiography safe. The amount of radiation used to obtain dental radiographs is very small. For example, bitewing radiographs—two to four images of the back teeth—expose a patient to about 0.005 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation (a millisievert is a unit of measure).1 By comparison, because radiation is part of our environment, people in the United States are exposed, on average, to 3.2 mSv every year from background sources of radiation.1 Basically, you get more radiation being outside or watching tv than you do from a single x-ray
Dentists follow the ALARA principle, which stands for “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” when obtaining radiographs. This radiation safety principle limits your exposure by incorporating the following techniques:
- use of the fastest image receptor (that is, the fastest film speed or digital speed);
- reduction in the size of the x-ray beam to the size of the image receptor whenever possible;
- use of proper exposure and processing techniques;
A lead apron will be used when someone is pregnant, had head/throat/neck radiation therapy, or when a patient requests the use of one. Because of the low amount of radiation, Washington State has made this determination.
Because of the low radiation dose associated with dental radiographs, people who have received radiation treatment for head and neck cancer can undergo dental radiography safely. In fact, head and neck radiation treatment can increase the risk of developing tooth decay, making the radiographs all the more important for these patients.
If you are pregnant, tell your dentist. During your pregnancy, you may need to have radiographs taken as part of your treatment plan for a dental disease that requires immediate attention. Use of the leaded apron and collar will protect you and your fetus from radiation exposure. To learn more about the benefits and safety of dental radiographs, talk with your dentist.