5 Fast Facts About Dental X-rays

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young child dental patient holding up panoramic x-ray of her mouth
  • Dental X-rays, also known as dental radiographs, give your dentist a more in-depth picture of your overall oral health than a visual examination can provide. The various kinds of dental X-rays, including panoramic X-rays, bitewing X-rays, and periapical X-rays, among others, each reveal a different view of your mouth. Your dentist can use dental X-rays for a wide variety of purposes, including to find cavities between your teeth, to diagnose gingivitis or periodontal disease, to help place implants, to uncover tumors, and to detect impacted teeth. Here are a few more facts you should know about dental X-rays.

  • 1
    There are many different types of dental X-rays.
    woman getting bitewing x-rays of her teeth

    You’re probably most familiar with bitewing X-rays, which are taken with the X-ray film inside the mouth (called intraoral X-rays) of the crown-to-bone area of both the upper and lower teeth. Other types of X-rays include:

    • Periapical X-ray, which focuses only on one or two teeth, all the way from the crown to the root of the tooth

    • Palatal, or occlusal, X-ray, which takes an image of all the teeth in either the upper or lower jaw at one time

    • Panoramic X-ray, which is taken from outside the mouth (extraorally) with a machine that rotates around the patient’s head to capture the entire mouth, including the jaw, all at one time. The dentist usually uses these X-rays to check for jaw problems, plan for dental implants, and detect impacted wisdom teeth. It’s not typically used for finding cavities.

  • 2
    You may not need dental X-rays every year.
    gloved hand pointing to dental x-ray with dental tool

    Adults who have healthy teeth and gums and who are in general good health may not need to get their teeth X-rayed every year. If you’re at low risk for developing cavities or oral disease and aren’t having any other oral health issues, you can probably skip the annual X-ray and just get them every two or three years. If you have previously had cavities or are at a higher risk of getting them, your dentist will likely recommend bitewing X-rays—those that show the upper and lower teeth in just one area of your mouth—every 18 months. If you’re visiting a dentist for the first time, you will likely undergo X-rays so the dentist will have a baseline for your oral health.

  • 3
    An X-ray of wisdom teeth can determine whether they need to be removed.
    closeup of panoramic wisdom teeth and dental x-ray with dental assistant, father and young patient in background

    Wisdom teeth, which are the third set of molars, are commonly impacted, meaning they don’t emerge from the gums. While this doesn’t always cause a problem, panoramic imaging can be used to X-ray wisdom teeth, and this panoramic X-ray can help your dentist determine whether these teeth need to be extracted. Impacted wisdom teeth can sometimes cause the other teeth to become overcrowded, or if the wisdom teeth only partially emerge, they can trap food, resulting in tooth decay. Your dentist, after looking at your wisdom teeth X-ray, can make recommendations about whether they should be removed.

  • 4
    3-D X-rays can be used in addition to 2-D X-rays if more imaging is needed.
    female dental patient getting panoramic x-ray

    One type of three-dimensional X-ray, called cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT), provides high-quality images of the patient’s mouth, including the teeth, soft tissue, nerves and jawbone. CBCT machines capture the entire X-ray image in one rotation around the patient’s head. This type of X-ray causes more radiation exposure than traditional 2-D X-rays or another type of 3-D imaging called dental computed tomography (CT), which takes many images as the machine rotates around the patient’s head. 3-D X-rays help the dentist diagnose any problems you may have with your gums, jaw or teeth roots.

  • 5
    Dentists have several ways to protect you from exposure to radiation.
    male dental hygienist taking dental bitewing x-rays of female patient wearing lead apron for protection

    The amount of radiation used to take teeth X-rays is minimal, making X-rays a safe diagnostic tool. However, your dentist will still work to prevent as much radiation exposure as possible. Beyond a leaded apron draped over your chest (preferably including a leaded thyroid collar for your neck), your dentist may also use a collimator, which is a tube that extends out of the X-ray machine and limits the size of the X-ray beam you receive. The dentist may also use the fastest type of film to record the X-rays or use a digital sensor. Even with these precautions, women should always inform their dentist if they are or might be pregnant before undergoing an X-ray.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 13
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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