Dental X-ray: Types, Cost & Safety (X-ray For Children And Pregnant Women)

Superman isn’t the only one who can see right through you. Your dentist can too, thanks to X-ray technology.

The strides that technology has taken over the last couple hundred years is phenomenal. Being able to take X-rays is one example — doctors can now literally look inside your body without using a single knife or tube.

And when it comes to dental care, X-ray’s have been life savers.

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Dental X-ray Overview

The term “X-ray” may be vague and confusing to those who are not familiar with them. So let’s talk about what an X-ray is, what it can do, and how it applies to the dental industry.

What Do Dental X-rays Show?

Using an X-ray machine, dentists can see a number of things in the mouth. X-rays pass through soft tissue, like cheeks and lips, and are absorbed by dense tissue, like teeth and bones. This allows the dentist to view just the inner workings of the teeth and jawbone.

Depending on the type of X-ray, they can show:

  • Cavities
  • Tooth roots
  • The bony area around teeth
  • Developing teeth under the gum line
  • Cysts, abscesses, and other masses
  • Monitor growth and development
  • View impacted teeth
  • Examine the jawbone
  • Examine the face bones

How Often Do You Need A Dental X-ray?

First, we should note that every patient is different. Hence, the frequency of getting an X-ray test depends on the situation, the patient, and the dentist.

Generally, if you’re a new patient, your dentist may want an initial X-ray to determine a homeostasis of your oral health. This will help the dentist notice any changes as you have regular visits. And of course, if you’re showing signs and symptoms of some sort of gum disease or cavity, you may need to have more frequent X-ray tests.

Children may need radiographs more often because their teeth and jaws develop and change rapidly as they grow. Plus, they’re more likely to get tooth decay, so X-rays can be used as a precaution.

Are Dental X-rays Necessary?

The fact that your dentist can look at the health of your teeth, roots, and bones through an X-ray is often crucial to giving you complete dental care. This allows them to see any potential dental problems as well as improvements.

There is often decay on a tooth that looks normal when the dentist examines the mouth initially, but then the X-ray can show significant decay. Even the best dentists are not always able to simply look into a mouth and diagnose a problem. Teeth can appear totally normal while having decay or infection that a dentist can only see using X-ray technology.

It depends on the patient and their situation, but, yes, X-rays are often necessary.

X-rays allow your dentist to see any bone-related oral problem as well as monitor your improvement or declination.

Types Of Dental X-rays

There are two main types of X-rays: intraoral and extraoral. With intraoral X-rays, the film is placed inside the mouth while extraoral X-rays work with the film placed outside the mouth.

Intraoral X-rays

This is the most common type of X-ray because they offer the most detail.

Below, we’ll go through the different types of intraoral X-rays.

Bitewing X-Ray

This shows mainly the crowns of the back teeth, the molars and bicuspids (in front of the molars). The dentist will take two pictures, one from either side of your mouth. It’s called a bitewing because bite down on a wing-looking thing that keeps the film steady.

Many dentists consider a bitewing X-ray as the best way to evaluate decay that could be forming between the teeth.

Periapical X-ray

With a periapical radiograph, the dentist can look at just one or two teeth at once. It’s similar to the bitewing except that the crown down to the root is visible.

Most dentists find that this is often the best way to view infection or a fracture on a tooth or root.

Occlusal X-ray

These are bigger than most X-ray tests you’ll see. They look at tooth development and positioning in children. Each image will show almost the whole arch of the upper and lower jaw.

Extraoral X-rays

Extraoral X-rays take images with the film outside of the mouth. They can show not just the teeth, but also the jawbone and skull.

Here are the different types of extraoral X-rays.

Panoramic X-ray

This takes a panoramic radiograph of the mouth, so it can see the entire set of teeth, upper and lower. This requires a machine that slowly moves around, getting a 360-degree of the jaw and teeth. It means your head and chin are placed in a device that keeps you perfectly still. Many people feel nervous or claustrophobic about this, but it is completely safe.

Cephalometric Projections

This type of X-ray takes a photo of one side of the head in order to show the dentist how the teeth are positioned in relation to the jawbone and the patient’s profile. Orthodontists often uses this to figure out the best treatment options.

Cone-beam Computed Tomography (CT)

This test gives the dental professional a 3D dental X-ray image but rotating around the patient’s head. They can use this to figure out what type of implant to use and where to place it.

This is not to be confused with a Standard CT scan (see below) — a cone-beam CT scan uses much less radiation than a medical CT scan.

Standard Computed Tomography (CT)

Usually, radiologists have to do this in their office or at a hospital, as opposed to a dentist’s office. As mentioned above, it has higher radiation exposure than a cone-beam CT, so the environment needs to be more controlled. For this test, the patient would lie down while the machine takes the image.

Digital Radiographs

Digital X-rays are a very new type of radiograph. Instead of using film, they use a flat electronic sensor, then send the image to a computer so they can view it on the screen, save it to the computer, or even print it out. The big benefit is that these use about half the amount of radiation that a conventional X-ray uses.

Dental professionals can perform digital radiographs intraorally and extraorally.

The three types of intraoral X-rays (film placed inside the mouth) are bitewing, periapical , and occlusal.There are also several types of extraoral X-rays (film is placed outside the mouth), and allow a broad range of angles for the dentist to examine.

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Dental X-ray Machine: How Does It Work?

Technically speaking, an X-ray machine produces X-rays, or radiographs. These rays are picked up by an X-ray detector (the film placed either inside or outside the patient’s mouth).

It depends on the type of X-ray you need, as we talked about earlier. For an intraoral X-ray, the dental professional will place the detector inside your mouth. For an extraoral X-ray, they will place the detector outside of your mouth.

Then the machine generate X-rays, sends them to the detector, and produces images of your mouth.

An X-ray machine sends radiographs to the film (whether inside or outside the mouth) and captures a picture of your teeth and mouth.

Are Dental X-rays Safe?

Many people are concerned about dental X-ray radiation, mainly because the word “radiation” sounds scary and dangerous.

And a single dental X-ray can expose the patient to mrem levels between 0.5 and 4. In context, a full-mouth X-ray exposure can be as much as 6 mrem for digital and 18 mrem for film.

However, these tests have been proven to be very safe, especially digital X-rays as those produce much less radiation. When X-rays are conducted properly and with safety as a top priority (which any good dentist would do), they are completely safe.

Think of it this way: four bitewing X-ray tests exposes you to about the same amount of radiation that a two-hour airplane ride would.

X-rays done by a professional are perfectly safe, unless you’re pregnant (more on that later).

Who Needs Dental X-Rays?

Not everyone needs a dental X-ray. But if your dentist suspects a problem with your oral health — like tooth decay, bone loss, gum disease, abscesses, infections, tumors, etc. — they may order an X-ray test.

Without an X-ray, problems could go undiagnosed, fester, develop, and become a much bigger problem than they should’ve been.

Anyone who has an issue with their mouth (tooth decay, bone loss, infections) may need an X-ray.

Dental X-rays While Pregnant

In general, pregnant women should avoid X-rays. Even though the radiation exposure is minimal, it’s best to just keep away from any radiation exposure. So if you’re pregnant or you could be pregnant, you should let your dentist know as early on as possible.

That being said, there are some cases where a pregnant woman may still need to get an X-ray. Examples include a dental emergency or getting pregnant during a long-term treatment plan.

There are things your dentist can do to minimize the risk even further, like using a leaded apron and thyroid collar.

Generally speaking, pregnant women should avoid X-rays. However, there are situations where a pregnant woman may need an X-ray, in which case the technician will take steps to minimize the X-ray exposure.

Child Dental X-rays

As a parent, you may be concerned to let your child undergo an X-ray, as any good parent would be. And while it is true that children are more sensitive to radiation than adults, the low amount of radiation in an X-ray test is considered safe for children.

It’s important to monitor the growth and development of a child’s jawbone and teeth. Dentists need to make sure a child’s mouth is large enough for incoming teeth, to see how wisdom teeth are growing in, monitor the loosening of teeth, and look out for tooth decay.

And X-rays provide a safe and effective way for dentists to do that.

Children are most sensitive to X-rays, but the benefits of seeing an X-ray of a child’s developing mouth outweighs the small risk of radiation exposure.

Dental X-ray Cost

The cost of a dental X-ray will vary depending the type of test and what the dentist charges.

Here’s the cost breakdown by X-ray type:

  • Bitewing (sets of two for children, sets of four for adults): $10 to $25 for one bitewing, $20 to $100 for a set
  • Periapical: $15 to $30 ($85 to $250 for a full-mouth X-ray)
  • Panoramic: $60 to $150
  • Occlusal: $20 to $40
  • All other types of X-ray tests: speak with your dentist for a quote

Most dental insurances will cover an X-ray as they’re often considered a necessary part of treatment. You may also have a small copay of roughly $50.

X-ray tests are relatively cheap. Depending on your insurance, you may only have a small copay.

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do, first, is to speak with your dentist about the benefits, risks, costs, and necessity of X-ray radiographs. Ask questions. Make sure you know as you much as possible.

This will make the whole process of getting an X-ray much easier and smoother.