Dental X-ray Radiation – How Bad Is It?

Blog By Lisa Lanzillotti, D.M.D.

With all of the hype in the media about cancer causing agents, including x-rays, why in the world do dentists need to take them yearly? Hopefully I can answer that question for you in this blog.

First, let’s establish what forms of radiation are bad, and what makes them so harmful. We can divide radiation forms into two groups: ionizing and non-ionizing radiation sources. We are exposed to non-ionizing radiation everyday by such things as UV Light, tanning beds, and being in the sunlight. This type of radiation causes premature aging, cataracts, and skin cancer.

Ionizing radiation comes in several different forms of varying intensity (alpha, beta, gamma, x-ray and neutron), and it is ionizing radiation that can impair normal cell function and/or kills cells by interfering with the cell’s DNA. Of the different forms of ionizing radiation, x-ray radiation is one of the most highly penetrating and can only be stopped by a barrier such as lead or concrete.

The ionizing radiation in x-rays is measured in Sieverts (Sv). In general, the doses we are exposed to are represented in µSv, or 1/1,000,000 Sievert. The National Council on Radiation Protection Measurements (NCRP) recommends maximum doses of 1000 µSv/year for the general public and 50,000 µSv/year for the clinical staff working with the radiation, other than the radiation that we are exposed to from natural background (i.e. radon, etc).

Dentists use x-rays as a diagnostic tool to detect damage and disease that is not visible during a regular dental exam. In medicine, there are consequences to everything we do. During our training, we are taught to make sure that any treatment or prophylactic procedure we do, has benefits that outweigh any negative effects these procedures could cause. As a matter of fact, we take an oath to do no harm.

In dental school radiology classes, I was taught the principle of ALARA in radiation. ALARA stands for exposing your patient to radiation in doses that are As Low As Reasonably Possible. Having said that, let’s take a look at how much radiation you as a patient are exposed to with dental x-rays, in relation to other medical procedures and everyday activities.

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