What are dental x-rays?

Dental x-rays, or radiographs, are two-dimensional images that show the tooth anatomy and bone in your mouth. There are two main types of dental radiographs:  intraoral (Inside the mouth and extraoral (outside the mouth). This refers to the placement of the film or sensor, whether it’s inside the mouth or outside the mouth. The most common radiographs taken include:


These are intraoral images. They focus on the entire tooth and show it all the way from the crown to the tip of the root.


Bitewings are also intraoral images. They show the crowns of both the upper and lower posterior teeth on the same image.  They are most often taken to check for cavities between the teeth.


Panoramic radiographs are extraoral.  They show the entire oral cavity including the teeth, jawbones and joints, and sinus areas.  They are often taken to assess tooth development, wisdom teeth, and for orthodontic purposes.

What are Digital X-rays?

With the advancement in technology digital x-rays are becoming more common. Digital radiography uses an X-ray sensor instead of film to produce the image.  The image is displayed onto a screen and does not need to be developed like a film. Digital X-rays require less radiation exposure (approximately 50-80% less than film).

 Are Digital X-Rays Better?

Waterloo Emergency Dental Clinic uses digital radiography only.  We believe it has many advantages over film. First and foremost, digital X-rays require less radiation exposure this makes them safer for our clients and our staff.  They are faster since they can show the image almost instantly.  The image can be enhanced and transferred easily if needed as well. We also think that they are better for the environment as we do not need any chemicals to develop them.

 What do dental x-rays show?

Dental x-rays are a diagnostic tool and help the dentist to make a proper diagnosis.  Some of the things they evaluate include the following:

  • existence and extent of potential decay, especially between the teeth or under existing restorations
  • condition of present dental work
  • check tooth and jaw development
  • assess root health (presence of infection)
  • check bone health
  • impacted teeth
  • joint health
  • fractures
  • presence of cysts and tumours

Basically, with the help of x-rays the dentist will be able to see things that they can’t with doing a visual examination only.  Without dental x-rays the dentist cannot make an accurate diagnosis and complete treatment plan.

Are dental x-rays safe?

Dental X-rays are considered very safe.  Digital dental x-rays have a very low dose of radiation.  According to the American Dental Association (ADA) 4 digital bitewings result in 0.005 mSv of radiation exposure. To put this into perspective, a person is exposed to approximately 0.01 mSv during a 2.5-hour airplane flight.  To further reduce your exposure, a lead apron is used while the x-rays are taken to block scatter radiation.

 How often should dental X-rays be taken?

There is no easy answer to this question as it depends on many different factors.  Some of these include the present state of your oral health and your general health history, your age, presenting complaints, and risk factors for various conditions.  Radiographs should be taken on a case-by-case basis.  People who are more at risk of dental problems and may require dental x-rays more often include:

  • Adults with a lot of present dental work
  • Smokers
  • People who have gum disease
  • People with dry mouth
  • Children

Can I refuse x-rays?

You have the right to decline x-rays. However, having said that, this may put your oral health and even your life at risk.  Problems that may be not visible clinically may be present and they can go undiagnosed. These problems can get worse over time and become more difficult to treat and, in some cases, may lead to tooth loss and even threaten your life. Also, remember that in some cases the dentist can refuse to treat you without necessary images due to safety and liability concerns.

We hope that you found the answers that you were looking for. Waterloo Emergency Dental Clinic is always here to help. If you have any additional concerns or simply need a dentist, give us a call today.

DISCLAIMER: The advice offered is intended to be informational only and generic in nature. It is no way to offer a definitive diagnosis or specific treatment recommendations for your particular situation.  Any advice provided is no substitute for proper evaluation and care by a qualified dentist.