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How many dental x-rays do your children need?

2/26/2014, 4:39 p.m.
It’s a perfect time to take your kids to the dentist for one of their regular visits. But before you ...

It’s a perfect time to take your kids to the dentist for one of their regular visits.

But before you do, be well-informed about how often your child should have dental X-rays. Those X-rays are a valuable tool for finding problems in teeth and the bones surrounding teeth. However, all X-rays use ionizing radiation that can potentially cause damage. Though it is spread out in tiny doses, the effect of radiation from years of X-rays is cumulative. The risks associated with this radiation are greater for children than for adults.

"X-rays are an important tool for dentists to diagnose dental diseases. However, they do not need to be part of every exam," said Dr. Katina Spadoni, dental director for Delta Dental of Illinois. "They should be ordered only after the dentist has examined the mouth and has determined that X-rays are needed to make a proper diagnosis. In general, children and adults at low risk for tooth decay and gum disease need X-rays less frequently."

The purpose of X-rays is to allow dentists to see signs of disease or potential problems that are not visible to the naked eye. They are usually ordered after the dentist has done a clinical exam and considered any signs and symptoms, oral and medical history, diet, hygiene, fluoride use and other factors that might suggest a higher risk of hidden dental disease. So be sure that your dentist checks your child's teeth, health history and risk factors before deciding an X-ray is necessary.

Ideally, your dentist should adhere to the guidelines established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Dental Association. The following chart, adapted from those guidelines, gives a basic timeline for recommended frequency of X-rays by age group. Keep in mind that multiple factors such as the child's current oral health, future risk for disease, and developmental stage determine need, and some children will require more X-rays, and some fewer.

Even though the individual risk from a necessary X-ray exam is quite small when compared to the benefit of aiding accurate diagnosis or guiding a treatment, dentists are encouraged to follow the ALARA principle, that is "As Low As Reasonably Achievable." In other words, only order what is absolutely needed to make a diagnosis.