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the Australian Dental Association
Written by the Australian Dental Association, Aug 30, 2022
Fact Checked

Dental radiographs, often referred to as dental x-rays, allow your dentist to see what is happening in your mouth below the surface of your gums and teeth. By taking x-rays, your dentist can provide a comprehensive assessment of the health of your mouth.

Why take dental x-rays?

Dentists take x-rays to help them in seeing beneath the surface of the teeth and gums. This helps the dentist to detect dental diseases that may not be visible to the naked eye by a visual examination alone.

The type of x-ray your dentist takes will depend on the condition for which you are being assessed.

Dental x-rays can be used to detect:

  • Tooth decay.
  • Issues with past dental treatment.
  • Bone that has been lost from around teeth due to severe gum disease.
  • Tooth and bone fractures following an accident or injury causing damage to the face or mouth.
  • The location of teeth in relation to nerves, sinuses, and other facial structures.
  • Abscesses, cysts, and tumours.
  • Stages of tooth development including the timing of when teeth will push through into the mouth.
  • Extra teeth, missing teeth, and teeth that are blocked from moving into the mouth, called impacted teeth.

X-rays allow dentists to plan for dental procedures, such as fillings, dental implants, orthodontic treatment, denture fabrication, root canal treatment and removing a tooth (extraction).

Are x-rays safe?

Dental x-rays involve radiation, which is why some people may be concerned about the safety of this procedure. However, dental x-rays use a very low level of radiation and are safe to have. In fact, the amount of radiation you're exposed to during a dental x-ray is much less than what you're exposed to from other everyday sources.

Because the amount of radiation exposure involved in dental x-rays is extremely low and unlikely to cause any ill health effects both children and adults can have dental x-rays safely taken. The table in this fact sheet compares radiation exposure from dental x-rays to everyday life events.

Your dentist will leave the room when they take your x-rays. As a patient, you may have dental x-rays taken months to years apart, but your dentist takes multiple x-rays every day. Although dental x-rays are safe, your dentist is avoiding ongoing radiation exposure by stepping outside the treatment room.
 

Can pregnant people have x-rays?

If you are pregnant and experiencing a sore tooth or other dental problems, dental x-rays can be safely taken during this time to help the dentist diagnose the problem. Your dentist may take extra steps if you need a dental x-ray by using a lead apron to cover your abdomen.

If you're concerned about having a dental x-ray while you're pregnant, talk to your dentist. They can answer any questions you have and help put your mind at ease.
 
Lead Aprons
The advice from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is that lead aprons are not usually (or routinely) required for dental x-rays. This is because x-ray doses are so low and well-controlled in modern dentistry.

How your dentist reads x-rays

Dentists and other dental professionals receive special training in how to read dental x-rays. Reading dental x-rays is not difficult, but it does require training and experience to do it properly. Here are some of the things your dentist will be looking for.
  • Comparing your new x-ray to previous x-rays. This helps your dentist to see if there has been any change in the condition of the teeth or jawbone over time.
  • Checking for anything that is not normally present. This could be anything from a tooth that is out of place to a cyst in the jawbone.
  • Comparing the left and right sides of the x-ray. Comparing the difference between the two sides may make dental health issues easier to find.
Make sure to ask your dentist if you have any questions about what you see on the x-ray. They will be able to explain what the different features mean and if there is any reason for concern.
 

Types of dental x-rays

 
Bite wing x-rays

Bite wing x-rays are used as part of general dental check-ups. They are most commonly used to look for tooth decay and examine the level of bone around the teeth.

Your dentist will advise you how often these should be taken. This is usually based on how well you care for your teeth, your risk of developing tooth decay and/or gum disease, any current signs of disease and the status of your past dental treatment.

An example of a bite wing x-ray. Getty Images.


Periapical x-rays

A periapical x-ray is used to view an entire tooth, including the root(s) of the tooth and the bone surrounding it.
Some situations where your dentist may ask to take a periapical x-ray include if you have a sore tooth, before removing a tooth, or before, during and after recent dental root canal treatment. Your dentist will ask for your consent to take periapical x-rays and should explain the reason they are needed.

An example of a periapical x-ray. Getty Images.


Panoramic x-ray

A panoramic x-ray, which you may hear your dentist refer to as a ‘full-mouth x-ray’. This type of dental x-ray includes a view of the temporomandibular (jaw) joints (TMJ), eye sockets, maxillary sinuses, bones of the maxillary (upper) and mandibular (lower) jaws and all the teeth. Full-mouth dental x-rays allow dentists to:

  • Detect conditions such as cysts, tumours, and infections.
  • Assess the severity of gum disease.
  • Assess the stages of tooth development in children.
  • Review the development and location of wisdom teeth.
  • View how close the teeth sit to nerves, maxillary sinuses, and other facial structures.
  • Make plans for dental procedures.

These x-rays provide a good overall view of your mouth. Your dentist may also ask to take additional x-rays of areas of the mouth they need to inspect closer.
Generally, full-mouth x-rays are not recommended as the main x-ray to be used for detecting tooth decay.  

An example panoramic x-ray. Getty Images. 


Lateral cephalometric x-ray

A lateral cephalometric x-ray is used to capture a side-on view of your head and neck. This x-ray, together with a full-mouth x-ray, are routinely used in planning orthodontic treatment.

An example lateral cephalogmetic x-ray. Getty Images.


Cone beam computerised tomography

Cone-beam computerised tomography (CBCT) is used to create a three-dimensional (3-D) image of your teeth, jaws and surrounding facial structures. It may be referred to in short as a CBCT.

These x-rays are commonly used by dentists and dental specialists when planning more complex treatments.
Not all dental practices will have the equipment to take all the above-listed types of x-rays. Where necessary, you may be provided with a referral to an x-ray clinic that has the necessary equipment to take the required x-ray.

What kind of x-ray is right for me?

The kind of x-ray that's right for you depends the reason the x-ray is being taken and what your dentist may be looking for.
If you have any questions about dental x-rays, be sure to ask your dentist. They can help you to understand the benefits and risks of dental x-rays and how they are used to care for your oral health.
 

More information

If you would like more information on radiation safety, please visit www.arpansa.gov.au.

Radiation exposure factsheet by ADA and ARPANSA