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Are Dental X-Rays a Health Risk?

Are Dental X-Rays a Health Risk?

If you're always looking for an excuse to cancel your dentist appointment for fear of another dental filling, radiation from dental x-rays might be another good excuse. Although dental x-rays are generally safe, nobody needs extra radiation. You and your dentist can reduce your (and your kids') radiation exposure several ways. At your next dental checkup, ask these three questions:

  1. Do you use high-speed film? You want your dentist to use faster E- or F-speed film for conventional dental x-rays. Older, slower D-speed film delivers about 50% more radiation, though it's still widely used. (Digital imaging is even better, but it's not common yet.) Always ask for a lead apron with a thyroid shield or collar. The thyroid gland is extremely sensitive to radiation, especially in kids.
  2. When do you take 3-D scans? While a 3-D scan -- called a dental cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT) -- shows terrific cross-sectional images of your teeth and jaw, the radiation dose can be four to 67 times higher than conventional x-rays. Two major dental groups recommend CBCT only when regular x-rays won't provide enough information, such as before an implant. Experts disagree about using it for planning orthodontia, so discuss it with your dentist.
  3. Is this x-ray "just routine"? It shouldn't be. You need x-rays mainly when tooth cavity risk is high, a tooth aches, after a mouth injury, or when certain procedures are necessary. To reduce your radiation exposure, encourage the sharing of x-rays between your dentist and a specialist. Better yet, make them available online in an electronic medical record so any authorized doctor can access it.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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