Dentists use x-rays to assess your oral health. This helps them see what is going on with your teeth and gums. The photos made from x-rays show your dentist the state of your teeth and their roots. They also reveal jaw placement and changes in the bone and ligaments that hold the teeth in place. Areas of decay between the teeth and fillings, and details about the bones of the face are shown as well.
Dental x-rays can also help your dentist see if you have gum disease, and, if so, how much. Abscesses, infections in the bone, or odd growths such as cysts or tumors can also be found. X-rays show impacted or un-erupted teeth, too, as well as cavities and other signs of disease that can’t be found with a visual exam.
Types of Dental X-Rays and How They Work
For most dental x-rays, you bite down on a piece of plastic that has x-ray film inside. As the rays pass through the mouth, most are absorbed by hard tissues like teeth and bones. This creates the x-ray image.
For a digital x-ray, your dentist will use a film-like sensor. With this type, they can change the contrast or brightness. This helps them to find even a tiny case of tooth decay. Digital x-rays expose you to less radiation. The dentist can make this type faster, too, so other work does not have to wait.
A third type of x-ray is the panoramic radiograph. This lets the dentist see your whole mouth in one image. The three types of x-rays show different things, so your dentist may want more than one type to check your oral health.
Dentists take care to make sure that exposure to radiation is “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” or ALARA. (This is defined in Title 10, Section 20.1003, of the Code of Federal Regulations.) That is why they have you wear a lead apron and/or thyroid collar when they do x-rays.
How Often Should You Get Dental X-Rays?
Dentists decide if x-rays are called for on a patient-by-patient basis. They take into account general oral health, age, risk for gum disease, and any signs of oral disease. Kids’ teeth and jaws are still growing. They are more likely to get tooth decay than adults are, so they need x-rays more often.
Dentists want to make x-rays for all their new patients so they can check the state of their oral health. Your past dental office can send your x-rays to your new dentist. Still, your new dentist may want new ones to check for new decay and to see how your teeth have grown and developed.
Pregnancy and X-rays
Pregnant women, those who are or trying to get pregnant, or those who are breast-feeding need not delay dental x-rays. Radiation exposure from x-rays is very small compared to your daily exposure from elements that occur in nature.
X-rays not only help ensure an expectant mom’s oral health, they also help find dental issues that could harm your child. Your dentist may ask for x-rays if she feels she needs them for work that can’t wait until you give birth.
Talk to your dentist if you would like to learn more, or explore our pediatric dentistry resources.