Are Dental X-Rays Safe?
Concern over radiation is understandable, but it's important to know the risks as well as the benefits of dental x-rays.
How much radiation is too much?
While it’s true that excessive radiation can increase the risk of cancer, exposure to natural or “background” radiation is an unavoidable fact of life. Nearly everything, from the sun’s rays, to soil and rocks, to the food we eat, contributes to our overall exposure.
The average person is exposed to about 6,000 microSieverts (µSv) of radiation per year, with half of that amount coming from natural sources.
For comparison, a full mouth series of dental x-rays only adds up to about 35 µSv. In fact dental x-rays account for far less radiation than most medical imaging, contributing to less than 4% of the average person’s exposure to man-made sources of radiation. For example, a chest x-ray supplies twenty times as much radiation as a dental x-ray, and a mammogram supplies about 80 times as much!
Advances in technology, including digital radiography, have further reduced the radiation emitted by dental x-rays, so the benefits for prevention far outweigh the very minimal risk.
How often do I need dental x-rays?
While periodic exams every 6 months are recommended for most patients, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. For patients with a history of many cavities, gum disease, and dental infections should not go more than 6 months without x-rays. But for very low-risk patients with excellent oral hygiene, once a year or even once every 18 months may be sufficient.
The benefits of early detection of cavities and other dental problems certainly justify regular dental imaging, since small problems are likely to evolve into larger ones over time, possibly requiring multiple future x-rays, in addition to potential pain, expense, and infections, when procedures such as root canals become necessary. Speak with your dentist about your personal risk level and whether it would be advisable to go without x-rays every 6 months.
Finally, most states require dentists to have an x-ray before performing dental treatment such as fillings, in order to obtain a proper diagnosis and rule out infections and other pathology.
What if I am pregnant?
This is a great question and one I have previously addressed in detail. Check out my post on visiting the dentist while pregnant.
Exposure to “background” radiation is a daily occurrence, whether from natural sources such as the sun or the soil, or man-made sources such as medical imaging. Thanks to modern digital technology, dental x-rays account for less than 3% of exposure to radiation.
Early detection of cavities can prevent pain, infections, and the need for many more x-rays in the future, so the benefits of regular dental imaging far outweigh the very minimal risk.