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Updated on November 16, 2023
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Dental X-rays: Types & Risks

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Overview: Dental X-rays

Dental X-rays allow general dentists and other healthcare providers to check the condition of the following:

  • Your teeth
  • Roots
  • Jaw placement
  • Facial bone structure

Dental X-rays also help find and treat dental issues early in development. They're often taken if your dentist believes you may need orthodontic treatment. 

Finding and treating oral issues early in their progression can help you improve the quality of your dental care, save money, prevent discomfort, and, in extreme cases, save your life.

If you visit a new dentist, you'll probably undergo a dental X-ray on your first visit to the dentist's office. This helps them improve the quality of their dental practice and provide you with personalized oral care.

gloved hands holding teeth xray and hand scaler

Benefits of Dental X-Rays

Dental X-rays are crucial in keeping your dental health in optimal condition. They provide valuable insights that are often not visible during a regular dental examination.

Some benefits of dental X-rays include:

Early Detection of Dental Issues

Dental X-rays can reveal problems that dentists can't see with the naked eye. They're very helpful for identifying dental problems at their earliest stages. This helps minimize the extent of damage so you can prevent costly and invasive procedures.

Comprehensive Assessment

Dental X-rays provide dentists with a comprehensive view of your mouth. They help assess and identify specific needs and risks. This leads to better and more precise treatment plans tailored to your unique oral health.

Treatment Planning

Dentists refer to Dental X-rays to plan for your treatment. The X-rays provide detailed images of the teeth, roots, and surrounding structures. This helps the dentist plan and execute the procedure more safely and accurately.


X-rays serve as a record of your oral health over time. Regular dental X-rays can be used as a baseline for comparison for future visits. The record can help your dentist track whether a procedure works or yields the desired changes.

Common Types of Dental X-rays

Two main types of X-rays are used in dentistry: intraoral X-rays and extraoral X-rays. Intraoral X-rays refer to when the X-ray film is in the mouth. Extraoral X-rays have a film outside the mouth. 

dental xray

What are Intraoral X-rays?

Intraoral X-rays are the more popular of the two types of dental X-rays. Intraoral X-rays offer a lot of detail about the teeth.

Dentists can use intraoral X-rays to do the following:

  • Find cavities
  • Assess the health of the tooth root
  • Check the health of the bone surrounding the tooth
  • Assess developing teeth
  • Determine if a patient is at risk for periodontal disease
  • Monitor the general oral health of the mouth

There are several types of intraoral X-rays. Each displays various aspects of the teeth.

1. Bitewing X-ray 

Bitewing X-rays display details of the upper and lower teeth in a particular area of the mouth. Every bitewing scan shows a tooth from its crown to around the level of the supporting bone.

Bitewing X-rays detect tooth decay, bone loss, and adjustments in bone density caused by gum disease. Bitewing X-rays also help to assess the best fit of a crown or cast restoration.

2. Occlusal X-ray 

Occlusal X-rays are bigger scans that display full tooth development and placement. Every X-ray shows the complete arch of the teeth in either the upper or lower jaw.

Occlusal X-rays discover extra teeth, jaw fractures, a cleft palate, cysts, dental abscesses, or growths. They also find foreign objects lost in the mouth.

3. Periapical X-ray

Periapical X-Rays reveal the entire tooth from the crown down to where the tooth anchors in the jaw. Every periapical X-ray displays this full tooth dimension and shows all the teeth in one portion of the mouth, either in the upper or lower jaw.

Periapical X-rays assess any teeth root abnormalities and the surrounding bone.

What are Extraoral X-rays?

Extraoral X-rays also show teeth. But unlike intraoral X-rays, they focus on the jaw and skull.

Extraoral X-rays do not show the in-depth detail that intraoral X-rays do. As such, they aren’t used for finding cavities or identifying issues with individual teeth.

Instead, dentists use extraoral X-rays for the following:

  • Discover an impacted tooth or teeth
  • Assess the growth and development of the jaw bones
  • Identify issues between the teeth and the jaws
  • Check for any problems relating to the facial bones

There are a few types of extraoral X-rays available, including:

1. Panoramic X-ray

A panoramic X-ray reveals the whole mouth area. This type of X-ray identifies impacted teeth, shows your wisdom teeth' progression, and helps diagnose tumors.

2. Tomogram X-ray

A tomogram X-ray displays a specific layer or ‘slice’ of the mouth while softening the focus on all other segments. This X-ray helps to assess structures that are difficult to observe.

3. Cephalometric X-ray

This type of X-ray displays the complete side of the head.

Cephalometric X-rays examine the teeth in relation to the jaw and the patient’s profile.  Orthodontists commonly use cephalometric x-rays in the diagnosis of malocclusions.

4. Sialography X-ray

A sialography X-ray scans the salivary glands after injecting a special dye called a contrast medium into the salivary duct.

The dye shows your salivary glands, which are soft tissues that don't normally display on an X-ray. This procedure detects salivary gland issues, such as blockages or Sjögren's syndrome.

5. Computed Tomography X-ray

A computed tomography X-ray, or CT scanning, displays the body’s interior structure as a three-dimensional scan. It assesses issues related to the facial bones, including tumors and fractures.

6. Cone Beam Computed Tomography Imaging

CBCT shows a three-dimensional image of the face and jaws. It's more commonly used in dentistry than CT scanning.

Because it requires smaller, less expensive technology than an x-ray machine, many dentists offer CBCT imaging in their private practices. CBCT images are advantageous in planning dental implant placement, difficult extractions, and complex root canals.

How Often Should Dental X-rays Be Performed?

Dental X-rays should only be conducted when necessary to minimize radiation exposure.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s left to the dentist or healthcare provider to decide when a patient requires a dental X-ray.

How often X-rays should be taken depends on various factors relating to the patient. These include:

  • Medical and dental history
  • Age
  • Stage of the dental disease or condition
  • Risk factors for various oral conditions
  • Symptoms of oral disease

Tailored X-Ray Schedules

Some people require dental X-rays every six months. X-rays may need to be taken often for those who suffer from dental problems regularly.

However, others who don't have a history of dental or gum disease may only require a dental X-ray every few years.

Considerations for Children

Children should have fewer X-rays than adults because they are more radiation-resistant. They shouldn't have a dental X-ray more than once annually. However, once a child shows a higher risk for cavities, more X-rays may be necessary. 

Complications & Risks of Dental X-rays

Dental X-rays are very safe. While they work with radiation, the exposure levels are so low that they will not harm children and adults.

However, like with any treatment, repeated exposure has some potential risks. These include an increased risk of:

  • Thyroid cancer 
  • Tumors in tissues covering the brain and spinal cord
  • Radiation exposure
  • Affecting the health of developing fetus in pregnant women  

If you are concerned, there are ways that your dentist can minimize the exposure to radiation from dental X-rays. These include:

  • Taking a single X-ray image rather than multiple
  • Using the lowest radiation setting possible
  • Protecting certain areas of the body from radiation using leaded coverings


Dental X-rays are important in diagnosing and preventing oral health issues. While radiation is used to capture the X-ray, it's safe, and the risks of harm are minimal. Receiving X-rays from professionals with proper experience will help guarantee your safety during the procedure.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some common questions and concerns often asked in the dental office.

Do I need to prepare for a dental X-ray?

Dental X-rays don’t require much preparation. All you need to do before meeting a dental professional is brush your teeth before the examination. This offers a cleaner and more hygienic space for the dentist examining your mouth. 

Are dental X-rays safe for children?

Many parents worry that dental X-rays may affect children negatively, as they’re more sensitive to radiation. However, the level of radiation in a dental X-ray is still safe enough for a child.

Children’s teeth and jaws are continually developing, so X-rays are essential to assess their progress.

Can I get a dental X-ray while pregnant?

Radiation poses a risk to developing fetuses. Women who are pregnant should approach dental X-rays with caution. However, most OB/GYN doctors consent to dental X-rays on pregnant patients during the second and third trimester. In many cases, the risk of dental infection is higher than the risk from the X-ray in pregnant women.

What are the different types of dental X-rays?

The different types of intraoral dental X-rays include:
-Bitewing X-rays
-Occlusal X-rays
-Periapical X-rays

The different types of extraoral dental X-rays include:
-Panoramic X-ray
-Tomogram X-ray
-Cephalometric X-ray
-Sialography X-ray
-Computed Tomography X-ray
-Cone Beam Computed Tomography Imaging

How often should you get dental X-rays?

The correct answer to this question is patient-specific and risk based.

For many people with few or no dental issues, an X-ray every two or three years is sufficient to monitor your oral health. Other patients may require multiple X-rays each year to monitor treatment progress.

Are dental X-rays harmful?

Dental X-rays require very low levels of radiation exposure, so they are considered safe for both children and adults.

Last updated on November 16, 2023
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on November 16, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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  2. Abrahams J.J. "Dental CT imaging: a look at the jaw." Radiology, 2001.
  3. "The Selection of Patients for Dental Radiographic Examinations." U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  4. "New research on dental X-ray risks." British Dental Journal, 2019.
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  6. Erdelyi et al. "Dental Diagnosis and Treatment Assessments: Between X-rays Radiography and Optical Coherence Tomography." Materials (Basel), 2020.
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