Hubbard Dental
Dentist showing x-ray to senior patient and discussing how often they should have dental x-rays

How Often Should Seniors Have Dental X-Rays

“How often should seniors have dental X-rays?” It’s a question that many elderly individuals and their caregivers find themselves asking quite often, with good reason. Keeping track of oral health is crucial, especially as we age.

Dental X-rays are essential in maintaining our dental health, helping identify potential problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, and oral cancer.

What Is a Dental X-Ray?

A dental X-ray is a diagnostic tool common in dental offices worldwide. It’s a type of imaging test that gives your dentist a closer look at your teeth, gums, and mouth structures. The image produced, known as radiographs, can reveal things that may be hidden from the naked eye, aiding in maintaining your dental health. Regular dental visits often involve using a dental X-ray to diagnose and treat any potential issues accurately.

Through dental X-rays, dentists can better plan for and execute various dental treatments, as it helps them see the complete picture of your oral health.

What Are the Types of Dental X-Rays?

1. Bite Wing X-rays

This type is excellent at detecting cavities between teeth and monitoring the bone level, especially if you have a history of cavities. During the dental exam, your dentist asks you to bite down on a piece of plastic to get this X-ray, hence the name “bitewing.”

2. Periapical X-rays

These focus on specific teeth, from the root to the crown. They are ideal for diagnosing root structure issues or abscesses. Additionally, periapical X-rays can help identify any changes or anomalies in the bone surrounding the tooth, offering crucial insights for treatment planning. Periapical films are useful in this process as they provide a high-resolution image, essential for a detailed analysis of the tooth and surrounding bone structures.

3. Panoramic X-rays

This type gives a comprehensive view of your entire mouth, including wisdom teeth. It’s often used in oral surgeries or when planning extensive treatment plans. They also enable the dentist to detect any abnormalities or issues with the jaw bone structure, sinuses, and nasal areas, providing a broader scope of overall oral health.

4. Intraoral X-Rays

The most commonly used dental X-ray gives a high level of detail of individual teeth, from the crown to the supporting bone structure. Intraoral X-rays provide accurate, clear images that allow the dentist to inspect the root canals, check the health of the dental pulp, and even detect periodontal disease and abscesses.

What Happens During a Dental X-Ray Procedure?

Step 1: Patient Preparation

You’ll need to remove any metal objects that may interfere with the images, like jewelry or eyeglasses.

Step 2: Protection

The dental assistant will provide a lead apron for your body and a neck collar to protect your neck from exposure to radiation.

Step 3: Positioning

Depending on the type of X-ray, you will bite down on a dental device (like a bitewing X-ray) while the X-ray machine is positioned next to your head.

Step 4: Imaging

The X-ray machine is turned on for a few seconds, taking images of your teeth and oral tissue. In modern dental practices, digital X-rays are often used instead of traditional X-ray machines due to their improved accuracy and efficiency in taking images of teeth and oral soft tissues.

Step 5: Discussion

Once the X-ray images are ready, the dentist discusses the findings with you and helps you understand your treatment plan.

What Do Dental X-Rays Detect?

  • Tooth Decay. X-rays are particularly useful in detecting cavities hidden away from view, helping to ensure your dental health is always in top shape.
  • Periodontal Disease. X-rays can show early signs of gum disease by displaying changes in bone structure and the appearance of calculus. They can also reveal any hidden dental structures, such as hidden wisdom teeth, helping your dentist devise a treatment plan.
  • Infections. An image might reveal an abscess or infection beneath the gum line or at the root of a tooth. This allows the dentist to not only treat the problem effectively but also prevent any potential complications that could arise if left untreated.
  • Oral Cancer. Although rare, dental X-rays can be instrumental in revealing early oral cancer signs by showing changes in the bone or other structures of the mouth.
  • Cavities. Detection of small areas of decay between the teeth or below existing fillings that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
  • Bone Loss. Dental X-rays can identify bone loss due to periodontal disease. Bone loss, as detected by dental X-rays, often leads to tooth loss if not treated promptly.

Why Is Dental X-Ray Necessary?

1. Detect Hidden Dental Issues

X-rays allow dentists to find cavities, check the health of the tooth root and bone surrounding the tooth, inspect the status of developing teeth, and monitor the health condition of your teeth. They also play a vital role in identifying impacted teeth, abscesses, or cysts hidden beneath the gum line, often undetectable through a standard oral examination.

2. Efficient Treatment Planning

They play a crucial role in devising detailed treatment plans, from root canals to the placement of dental implants. With the comprehensive view offered by X-rays, dentists can predict potential complications and plan the most effective and least invasive course of treatment.

3. Prevention

X-rays can detect issues early in their development, allowing your dentist to treat or even stave off major dental health problems. They can spot the early onset of cavities, gum disease, or even oral cancer that might be invisible to the naked eye. Furthermore, recognizing these issues in advance can eliminate the need for invasive procedures in the future, leading to better overall oral health management.

4. Orthodontic Planning

Dental X-rays provide valuable information about the position of teeth and roots that are not otherwise noticeable for those requiring braces or other orthodontic treatment. This helps the dentist strategize the orthodontic treatment for optimal results.

5. Monitoring of Wisdom Teeth

Dental X-rays play a crucial role in monitoring the growth and position of wisdom teeth. They help determine whether there is enough space for them to grow normally or if removal is necessary to avoid future complications. They can also identify if the wisdom teeth are impacted or growing at an angle, preventing potential pain, infection, or damage to adjacent teeth.

When Is Dental X-Ray Needed for Seniors?

Persistent Tooth Pain

Tooth pain can be a result of various dental conditions ranging from tooth decay to a dental abscess. If seniors experience persistent tooth pain, it’s time to schedule a dental exam, which may involve X-rays. Dental X-rays, such as periapical X-rays, can reveal the root cause of the pain by providing a detailed look at the entire tooth, from the crown to the root where the tooth enters the jaw.

Gum Disease

Years of plaque and tartar build-up can lead to gum disease, a common condition in seniors. Symptoms can include swollen, tender, or bleeding gums. Dental X-rays, particularly bite wing X-rays, are invaluable in assessing the bone structure supporting the teeth and detecting any bone loss associated with advanced gum disease or periodontal disease.

Dry Mouth

Dry mouth, or lack of saliva, is a common condition in seniors, often side effects from medication or health conditions. Salivary glands and tissues might be affected, leading to a dry mouth condition, a risk factor for tooth decay and other oral health problems. Regular checkups and X-rays can help monitor oral health conditions associated with dry mouth.

History of Dental Issues

Regular dental X-rays are essential if a senior has a history of cavities or more intricate dental work like fillings, crowns, root canals, or oral surgeries. These help assess the current state of dental health and check the integrity of past dental work.

Suspected Oral Cancer

With aging comes an increased risk for certain types of cancer, like oral cancer. If there are symptoms like lumps or sores in the mouth that won’t heal, difficulty swallowing, or persistent discomfort, a visit to the dentist is crucial. In such instances, panoramic X-rays provide a broad view of the entire mouth and can be used as a diagnostic tool in oral cancer screening.

Visibly Damaged or Lost Teeth

Seniors are at risk for tooth loss due to several factors, including long-term wear and tear, bone loss, or disease. An X-ray can help determine the health of the remaining teeth and evaluate options for replacement, such as bridges, dentures, or implants.

What Is the Recommended Frequency of Dental X-Rays for Seniors?

Determining how often should seniors have dental X-rays relies on several factors:

  • The individual’s current oral health
  • Their dental history
  • Any existing symptoms
  • Age

Generally, seniors taking good oral health care and having no recent history of cavities might only require X-rays every couple of years. However, the dentist might want to take numerous X-rays alongside regular dental checkups for seniors with ongoing issues, such as gum disease, tooth decay, or dry mouth. Though radiation exposure in dental X-rays is minimal, your dentist will consider the risks and benefits of frequent X-rays. As a patient, always communicate with your dentist about your concerns to make informed decisions about your dental care.

What Are the Risks of Dental X-Rays for Seniors?

The Potential Effect on Thyroid Health

A primary concern associated with dental X-rays for seniors is the potential risk for disease, especially those affecting the thyroid. Exposing the neck area to the radiation emitted during a dental X-ray could heighten the risk for thyroid-related diseases and cancers. However, the use of correct protective measures, like thyroid collars, can reduce these risks, minimizing the potential dangers to thyroid health.

Dry Mouth and Further Dental Damage

X-ray exposure does not cause dry mouth directly, but it’s worth noting that seniors are more prone to having a dry mouth due to medications or health conditions. A dry mouth can contribute to oral health problems like tooth decay and gum disease. If dental X-rays reveal these conditions, additional treatments that may cause their discomfort or risks could be necessary.

Increased Sensitivity to Radiation

According to various studies, seniors may be slightly more sensitive to radiation exposure. Prolonged or repeated exposure, as may happen through numerous X-rays during regular dental visits over a couple of months, could raise the risk for diseases, including brain cancers. It is crucial to keep radiation levels low while undergoing treatment because as we age, our bodies’ capacity to repair radiation-induced damage decreases.

Increased Risk of Other Health Conditions

The effects of radiation from dental X-rays can be more noticeable in seniors with certain health conditions or a sensitive familial history. For example, seniors with autoimmune diseases may struggle more with recovery from dental procedures than the average patient. Exposure to even safe levels of radiation can still pose a heightened risk for these seniors, making it important to discuss personal health with the dental office during the initial visit.

The Cumulative Effects of Long-Term Radiation Exposure

While each dental X-ray exposes patients to only a bit of radiation, the cumulative effect of regular X-rays over a lifetime can still be a significant factor in total radiation exposure. The American College of Obstetricians warns that long-term exposure to even low-dose radiation, like that from dental X-rays, poses potential risks that escalate with age.

Are Dental X-Rays Painful?

Not at all. The entire process takes only a couple of minutes and is entirely non-invasive. Therefore, patients will likely experience no discomfort and tooth pain during this procedure. This makes dental X-rays a simple and relatively hassle-free part of many dental visits.

I Have Sensitive Teeth—Will the X-Ray Cause Discomfort?

Some patients report mild discomfort when biting down on the film holder, which is temporary and minimal. This dental exam usually does not involve direct contact with the teeth or gums, so it should not worsen tooth sensitivity. Your dentist can also take additional measures to ensure comfort if you have sensitive teeth.

Is Dental X-Ray Safe When Undergoing Cancer Treatment?

Discuss this with your dentist and oncologist. Your dentist can weigh the risk of disease against the benefit of detecting potentially harmful dental conditions. They can advise on the best course of action, potentially adjusting or delaying the X-ray. After all, patient safety, especially among those with serious health conditions like cancer, is always a top priority in dental practices.

Take the First Step to Excellent Oral Health—Contact Hubbard Dental Today

Regular and annual X-rays are critical to maintaining good oral health for seniors. With the guidance of a dentist, X-rays can reveal conditions that might go unnoticed in a routine cleaning or oral exam. At Hubbard Dental, we prioritize patient care and ensure that our dental services, including dental X-rays, are done professionally and safely. 

By scheduling regular dental checkups and X-rays, seniors can maintain their oral health and prevent potential dental issues. Remember, prevention is better than cure, and oral health is essential to ensure overall well-being.

Visit Hubbard Dental your dentist in Pinehurst to thoroughly assess your oral health and ensure you’re on track with your dental health care plan. Let’s keep those smiles bright for years to come!