4 dental diseases a dental X-ray can uncover

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Dental problems like bone loss, gum disease, and certain infections are often not visually apparent during an exam.

Dental problems like bone loss, gum disease, and certain infections are often not visually apparent during an exam.

Preventive care and early detection are essential to the effective management of many health issues. Your dental well-being is no exception. Detecting problems before they worsen will increase the chances of successful treatment.

Identifying bone loss, tooth decay, and infections early gives you and your dentist more options. You’ll also save money and lessen any pain or discomfort associated with the condition.

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Dental X-rays can show diseases of the mouth, including the teeth and gums, that would otherwise go undetected. These diseases include potentially serious conditions such as the following:

  1. An abscess, or infection at the root of a tooth or between the gum and a tooth

  2. Areas of decay that are not visually detectable

  3. Infections

  4. Cysts and tumors

It is important to address signs of infection or tooth decay in order to minimize the impact or damage, so if your dentist recommends X-rays, they likely are not only looking to make sure everything is okay, but want to address any issues they suspect based on how your exam is going. 

When to get dental X-rays

You should get dental X-rays either every six months or every three years, depending on the state of your dental health and how much dental work you have had completed. Children and teenagers may need more frequent X-rays.

The frequency of getting dental X-rays¹ depends on factors such as the following:

  • Your overall medical history - Many general health problems have roots in your oral health. 

  • Your patient status - Are you a new patient? Has it been a long time since your last dental exam? In both of these cases, your dentist may want to take X-rays at your appointment.

  • High-risk group - Some factors may lead you to be more predisposed to dental problems. An X-ray may aid the dentist in their recommendations to prevent or address problems.

  • Your dental history, oral hygiene habits, and evidence of any symptoms of a problem

Types of dental X-rays

Dental X-rays fall into two categories. The first is intraoral X-rays. These X-rays are taken inside your mouth. The other is extraoral, which are X-rays taken outside of the mouth. When you go to a new dentist or if it’s been a long time since you had X-rays taken, the dentist will probably want to get a full set of X-rays to get an overview of the state of your teeth and mouth. However, in the future, the dentist may find it necessary to repeat one or two of the X-rays in order to see if there have been any changes or injuries to your teeth. The most common dental X-rays used are:²

1. Periapical X-rays

A periapical X-ray is an X-ray of a specific tooth that lets the dentist see one entire tooth. It’s a good diagnostic tool if you have one specific tooth that’s giving you trouble or if you have damage to a particular tooth, such as a tooth that was damaged in a car accident or playing a sport.

2. Bite-wing X-rays

A bite-wing X-ray gives the dentist an in-depth look at the upper and lower posterior teeth. It’s used to show any existing decay in between the teeth, especially the back teeth and any teeth that are crowded or crooked. 

3. Occlusal X-rays

The occlusal X-ray is primarily used for children so that the dentist can see how their bite is developing and to spot any problems in the placement or development of a child’s teeth.

4. Panoramic X-rays

The panoramic X-ray is used to give the dentist a clear picture of the teeth, jaw, and sinus cavities. This type of X-ray will help the dentist create a treatment plan if you have missing or crooked teeth. If you need to have your teeth straightened, or if you have broken teeth or need implants, then this type of X-ray is usually the first step in the process of fixing your teeth.

High-risk factors a dental X-ray can help

Are you among those at high risk for dental issues? Certain groups and behaviors may place you at high risk for dental issues. If you consume lots of sugary drinks, for instance, you are at high risk for dental problems. Smokers are more likely to develop gum disease than nonsmokers. People who have had dental procedures in the past need X-rays more often to check for tooth decay. 

Age is also a factor. Children are always growing, including their teeth and jaws. Children are also more likely to be affected by tooth decay than adults, so a dentist may request X-ray imaging more often for patients that are children to take a proactive approach, through partnering with the child’s caregivers, to their oral health.

Some other types of problems, such as dry mouth, may prompt a dentist to more closely evaluate their patient, including ordering X-ray imaging more frequently. A dry mouth is irritating, but this condition might indicate a larger problem. 

Saliva production is crucial to good mouth health; saliva combats the negative effects of acidic food and drinks, and it helps prevent tooth decay. Dry mouth can be caused by many things such as certain medications, so a dentist may want to look at X-rays to rule out other causes. 

Are dental X-rays safe?

Dental X-rays are safe but do come with some risks. For instance, X-rays emit low levels of radiation.³ However, technology and techniques in radiology have improved over time. For instance, patients often wear protective aprons and collars when having X-rays taken.

Patients who may have concerns should talk to their dentist before their exam. Some patients, as an example, may want to discuss with their dentist their concerns if they are pregnant or breastfeeding. Dentists may decide to delay the X-rays for your next appointment, or they may say it is safe to go forward with them. Either way, it is better to bring up your worries so you can go to your appointment confident in what will take place instead of wondering whether or not you will have X-rays.

Does your dental insurance cover X-rays? If you have concerns about your current dental insurance coverage, it is important to review your policy. 

Links to external sites are provided for your convenience in locating related information and services. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees expressly disclaim any responsibility for and do not maintain, control, recommend, or endorse third-party sites, organizations, products, or services and make no representation as to the completeness, suitability, or quality thereof.

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.


  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11198-dental-x-rays, 2019

  2. https://www.colgate.com/en-us/oral-health/procedures/x-rays/types-of-x-rays (Last accessed April 2020) 

  3. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/x/x-rays (Last accessed April 2020)


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