Diagnostic X-Rays

Dental X-rays are a useful diagnostic tool when helping our doctors detect damage and disease not visible during a regular dental exam such as:

  • small areas of decay between the teeth or below fillings
  • bone damage from a tooth infection (such as an abscess) or a cyst
  • bone loss due to periodontal (gum) disease
  • developmental defects
  • some types of tumors
  • the effects of trauma
  • the position of unerupted teeth in children and adults

How often X-rays should be taken depends on your present oral health, your age, your risk for disease, and any signs and symptoms of oral disease.  For example, children may require X-rays more often than adults because their teeth and jaws are still developing and their teeth are more likely to be affected by tooth decay than those of adults.  Our doctors will review your history, examine your mouth and then decide whether or not you need X-rays.  Generally, in order for us to properly diagnose treatment, bitewing and cavity detecting x-rays will be taken if they are greater than 6 months old.

If you are a new patient, our doctors may recommend X-rays to determine the present status of your oral health and have a baseline to help identify changes that may occur later.  A new set of X-rays may be needed to help our doctors detect any new cavities, determine the status of your gum health or evaluate the growth and development of your teeth.  If a previous dentist has any radiographs of you that were taken within the last five years, our doctors may ask you for copies of them.

Dental X-rays are safe; however, they do require very low levels of radiation exposure, which makes the risk of potentially harmful effects very small.  Dental X-ray tools and techniques are designed to limit the body’s exposure to radiation and every precaution is taken to ensure that radiation exposure is As Low As Reasonable Achievable (The ALARA principle).  A leaded apron, which also includes a leaded thyroid collar (which protects the thyroid from radiation), minimizes exposure to the abdomen and should be used when any dental radiograph is taken.  Our office practice is to use the leaded apron during all X-rays.  The use of a leaded apron with a thyroid collar is recommended for woman of childbearing age, pregnant women, and children.

If you are pregnant, tell our doctors.  During your pregnancy, you may need to have X-rays taken as part of your treatment plan for a dental disease.  Use of the leaded apron and thyroid collar will protect you and your fetus from radiation exposure.  Dental X-rays do not need to be delayed if you are trying to become pregnant or are breastfeeding.

Digital x-rays are a computer generated image of the teeth and boney structures. Digital X-rays offer the benefit of using 70-80% less radiation using a digital sensor versus traditional plastic X-ray films. The computer image permits immediate viewing and can be enlarged and modified to enhance patient education and quick diagnosis.  This digital X-ray then becomes part of your computer file, which makes for easy access for printing or emailing to your insurance company or a referred specialist.  Digital X-rays are environmentally friendly as well, eliminating the need for film and film processing chemicals.  Our office only uses digital X-ray equipment.

Types of X-rays:

  • A bitewing X-ray picture shows the upper and lower teeth on one film. It is especially helpful in revealing decay between the teeth, and bone loss in early stages of periodontal (gum) disease.


  • An extra-oral bitewing X-ray picture shows the upper and lower teeth on one film.  It is especially helpful in revealing decay between the teeth, and bone loss in early stages of periodontal (gum) disease.  Our doctors may recommend this type of X-ray if you are a severe gagger or a pediatric patient.


  • A periapical X-ray picture shows the entire tooth, including the tip (apex) of the root and some of the surrounding tissues.

periapical xray

  • A Panoramic X-ray picture shows all the upper and lower teeth, jaws and other structures. It is frequently used to show the extent of growth, tooth eruption, and orthodontic problems. Panoramic radiographs can also be used for diagnosis of jaw fractures or before a denture is considered. Unerupted teeth, retained root tips, and other conditions of the jaw can all be seen.

digital panoramicSource:  mouthhealthy.org

Dental X-Ray Radiation Comparison

Radiation from dental radiographs is quite minimal and very safe for healthy patients to be exposed to.  This chart shows the amount of radiation a person receives from various activities.

Radiation Source Dosage (mSv)
Max annual dose permitted for U.S. radiation workers
Whole body CT scan
Abdominal CT scan
Chest CT scan
Spine CT scan
Average radiation in U.S. from natural sources (annual)
Radon in average U.S. home (annual)
Head CT scan
Spinal X-ray
Cosmic radiation living in Denver, CO/high elevation (annual)
Annual dose received by food and water (potassium)
Cosmic radiation living at sea level (annual)
Radiation in the body (annual)
Chest X-ray
Full mouth series f-speed film *
Full mouth series digital
Cross-country flight (New York to Los Angeles)
4 bitewings f-speed film
4 bitewings digital
Panoramic film
Panoramic digital
1 periapical f-speed film *
1 periapical digital
Living in a brick/stone/concrete house (annual)
Smoking one pack of cigarettes
Eating a banana
Airport security scan

*f-speed film based on round collimation

“To see is to know. Not to see is to guess. And we won’t guess when it comes to your oral health!”
Source – Today’s RDH