Are Teeth X-rays Safe? Purpose, Procedure & Potential Harms

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. Why Do You Need an X-ray of Your Teeth?
  2. How X-Rays Work
  3. Are They Safe?
  4. X-Rays for Children
  5. X-Rays in Pregnancy
  6. Safety Precautions
  7. Can You Say No?
  8. References

When your dentist can’t find a problem to explain your pain, discomfort or dental irregularity after a routine oral exam, he or she is to request a dental X-ray. As a common diagnostic tool, teeth X-rays are vital in revealing problems such as cavities, impacted teeth, or decay that might be invisible to the examining eye.

Dental radiographs are relatively safe, and you might have several of them in your lifetime. Current oral health, age, and the presence of other risk factors for dental problems are the main determinants of how frequently you might need tooth X-rays.

For instance, children are more prone to tooth decay because of their weak, developing teeth and jaws than adults. Consequently, they require more X-rays to evaluate their growing teeth and detect any abnormality early.

Why Do You Need an X-ray of Your Teeth?

After taking your medical history plus examining your mouth, the dentist decides whether you need to have a tooth X-ray. Typically, you should expect to have a dental radiograph during every two years during an annual checkup.

But if your doctor needs to track a problem or monitor treatment, the number of X-rays might escalate. First-time clients who go to a dentist without a previous radiograph should always expect a teeth X-ray as part of the initial evaluation.

Dental X-rays give an image of your teeth and jawbones as well as the soft tissues surrounding them. Since the radiographs capture every part of the teeth, from the crown to the roots, they’re integral in identifying caries between teeth, gum diseases, infections like abscesses (below the gums, tumors), and bone diseases.

If there’s an infection or injury, early detection with the help of an X-ray encourages early intervention, thereby preventing the spread of the disease to other parts of the mouth or the whole body.

Serial teeth radiographs help dentists to monitor teeth development, jaw placement and facial composition in children. As a result, it’s easier to pick developmental anomalies and institute corrective measures before the condition becomes a complex health issue.

How X-Rays Work

During the procedure, a beam of low-grade radiation, known as an X-ray, is directed towards your mouth. Hard tissues, including teeth and bones, absorb more rays compared to surrounding soft tissues. Bones and teeth appear whitish on the final film, while gums and other soft tissues appear dark. If there’s a fluid collection such as abscess, areas of infection, or tooth decay, they will be dark as they absorb little rays. Dark spots in unusual places raise suspicion of disease.

Are X-Rays of Your Teeth Safe?

Various types of radiation are associated with different resulting conditions, including cancers. As a result, many people wonder about the safety of X-rays, especially with the multiple exposures one can have in a lifetime. Generally, dental radiography is safe, with various factors and practices coming to play to make the procedure low risk.

First, the amount of radiation used in obtaining the dental films is pretty small. For instance, bitewing radiography uses only 0.005 mSv of radiation to get images of the molar teeth.

In comparison, the usual environmental exposure to radiation from background sources can go up to 3.2 mSv per year. According to the American College of Radiology, single radiation exposure during the dental X-ray cannot harm you or your fetus, if you’re pregnant.

Dentists usually employ the ALARA principle to ensure your exposure to radiation during this procedure is minimized. ALARA stands for “as low as reasonably achievable,” which means that only treatments that have a direct benefit should be used. Utilization of the fastest image receptors, lead shields, beam size optimization, proper exposure, and processing of the radiographs are some of the strategies adopted to make dental X-rays as safe as possible for all age groups.

If you are seeing a new dentist, remember to bring a copy of your previous dental images or to request them from your previous dentist ahead of your visit. This prevents unnecessary exposure that would occur from duplication, thereby limiting any risks associated with teeth X-rays.

The safety of dental radiography makes it suitable for oral health evaluation in many categories of individuals, including those who have received treatment for head and neck cancers.

Dental X-Rays for Children

Radiation exposure in this extreme age group might have far-reaching effects compared to adults. Thus, parents taking their children for dental x-ray usually have concerns about this procedure’s safety and its impact on their development. Fortunately, teeth radiography poses no significant threat to your child’s health because of the low radiation dose.

Children grow very fast, and the structure of their teeth or jaws is continuously changing. Therefore, it’s essential to monitor such rapid changes and correct any deviations from normal growth as early as possible.

Here are some of the reasons your dentist might request for your child’s dental X-ray:

  • Track the development of wisdom teeth

  • Detect tooth decay and infection

  • Determine the loosening of the primary teeth before the appearance of permanent teeth

  • Evaluate the size of the mouth and ensure it can accommodate incoming teeth

The frequency of teeth X-rays varies from one child to another depending on their growth and development profile and overall health status.

Dental X-Rays in Pregnancy

The American Pregnancy Association advises pregnant women to avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation at all times.

Routine dental x-rays done during annual checkups should be postponed until after delivery to prevent any possible harm to the fetus.

If you visit a dentist while pregnant, remember to inform them of your gravid status.

While radiation exposure is discouraged in pregnancy, dental x-rays cannot be postponed in some instances. Severe tooth infections that require a root canal and treatment monitoring are some of the indications for teeth X-ray in pregnancy. Your doctor will guide you on the following steps to ensure the best outcome for both you and the baby.

Extra precautions, including appropriate shielding, will limit the risk of adverse outcomes of having a dental x-ray while pregnant.

Safety Precautions for Teeth X-Ray

Implementing appropriate precautionary measures during dental radiography is the major contributor to this procedure’s safety. Using modern equipment that allows for beam size regulation and processes images adequately will greatly minimize radiation exposure.

The dentist can limit your exposure to radiation in the imaging room by:

  • Shielding particular parts of your body, such as the thyroid, using a neck collar

  • Lead aprons are also essential in enhancing safety

  • For children, you can discuss with your dentist the use of the lowest level of radiation possible for the procedure.

  • Taking a single image instead of multiple can help reduce the radiation dose you receive.

Can You Say No to an X-Ray?

Patients have the choice to accept or refuse an intervention recommended by the expert. Therefore, you can say no dental X-ray. But you might have to deal with the consequences too.

Your dentist will be risking liability of failure to diagnose and treat existing tooth problems if they continue with management without a teeth radiograph. If you refuse the diagnostic procedure, your dentist will likely halt care, especially if it’s non-urgent.

Teeth X-rays are relatively safe, and you shouldn’t refuse to take one. You can discuss any concerns with your dentist to find the best approach, including reducing the frequency and number of views.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.