Dental X-rays are both a useful source of oral health information and a controversial topic that many aren’t sure how to feel about. While they can literally give your dentist a much clearer picture of your overall oral health, they also come with a downside: radiation. In fact, just four bitewing X-rays expose the body to .005 millisieverts of radiation, which is the equivalent of the radiation exposure you’d get if you spent the day in the sun or took a short airplane flight. But while that may not seem like a lot of radiation to some, others are concerned that this exposure occurs so quickly, since most X-rays are done within minutes. So, what’s the bottom line with X-ray radiation exposure? Are X-rays safe, or should you skip them altogether?
Why Do We Take X-rays?
You may be wondering, with all the poking and prodding your dentist does, why we still need to take X-rays. The answer is simple. X-rays give us a clearer picture of what’s going on beneath the surface of your teeth and gums than we could ever get just by examining your teeth with the naked eye. X-rays help us see everything from old fillings to tooth decay, abscesses, bone and tissue deterioration, and even cysts and tumors. X-rays can save your teeth, and in some cases, can even safe your life!
Are X-rays Safe?
Yes. Your dentist knows the proper safety precautions to take to minimize your risk to radiation during your X-ray session. Though it may take several minutes to adjust the bitewing positions, the actual time spent X-raying your teeth is minimal, as is the exposure to radiation. If you are wearing a protective lead apron during your X-rays, your X-rays are perfectly safe.
Is the Lead Apron Safe?
If you’ve ever had X-rays done before, you’ve probably worn one of those heavy lead aprons over your neck and torso. You’ve probably also heard that exposure to lead is dangerous, so you may be confused about why your dentist would ask you to wear one of these protective garments.
The truth is, lead exposure from lead aprons is negligible. These garments are usually made of lead that is sealed in a layer of thin rubber on both sides. The rubber shields the body from the lead itself, while the lead protects the internal organs from the radiation of the X-ray machine. Organs such as the male and female reproductive organs as well as the thyroid are very sensitive to X-ray radiation and thus must be protected each time an X-ray is taken.
For young children, it is especially important to protect the growing thyroid, and most dentists will not perform X-rays on pregnant or nursing mothers as a precaution. Those dentists who do take these X-rays will most likely only do so if it is deemed 100 percent necessary.
How Often Do You Really Need X-rays?
There is no one-size-fits-all guideline for when a patient needs X-rays. Often, your dentist will take X-rays when a patient is new to the practice so he or she can get the full picture of any previous dental work that has been performed, as well as to get a clearer picture of the patient’s oral health. Most insurance companies will pay for one set of dental X-rays per year, so your dentist may request you update these images annually. If you have strong teeth and very few cavities or history of oral health problems, you may be able to get by with X-rays even less frequently than once a year, but even the healthiest mouth can develop problems, and even the most thorough exam can miss problems that an X-ray would detect.
When Shouldn’t I Get X-rays?
If you are pregnant or nursing, please be sure to tell your dentist or hygienist prior to your exam and cleaning so we do not X-ray you. Revealing this information can also help explain changes in your oral health, such as sensitive gums or pregnancy gingivitis, a temporary condition brought on by changes in your hormones during pregnancy.
If you have any further questions or concerns about X-ray safety, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Abelar, please give the office a call at 858-866-9692.