X-Ray Risks: What Parents Need To Know


Whether from a dentist X-raying their teeth or a doctor checking for a broken bone, children frequently undergo a number of medical procedures that require the use of radiation. While parents always want their child to receive the best possible medical care to treat whatever issue they are currently suffering from, when it comes to imaging tests – such as CT scans, PET scans, and X-rays- a child’s short-term need may present a threat to their long-term health.


Even though testing that uses radiation has become a common part of today’s medical practices, parents need to stop and consider any available alternatives before subjecting their child to these types of exams. Since a child’s body is still growing, the effects of radiation have a bigger impact on their physiology than adults who have already completed their development. While no doubt exists that X-rays and scans are a helpful and potentially life-saving tool, occasionally they’re not a necessity for young children.


To help you decide when to agree to radiation based testing, here are a few things every parent should know.


A Common Occurrence

In the U.S., children now receives an average of seven radiation based scans before they reach the age of 18, according to a recent study.


While the majority of those scans are X-rays, which use low levels of radiation, roughly one out of every eight tests ordered for children is a CT scan, which can deliver up to 200 times more radiation than a standard chest X-ray. Currently, the average number of CT scans a year performed on U.S. children is about seven million, a number that continues to rise roughly 10 percent per year.


When examining why the number of CT scans continue to rise, researchers concluded that a combination of doctors willingly embracing the use of the technology as a means of performing physical examinations and parents demanding the test be performed, especially in cases of potential head injury, have led to an increase use of the procedure.


Many health officials worry that an over reliance on procedures like CT scans could subject children to unnecessary risks, as many times a child doesn’t need to undergo this type of exam at all. They just need to be observed in a safe setting.


One recent study showed that children who visited the ER after suffering a minor head injury had their likelihood of receiving a CT scan greatly diminish if they underwent observation in the ER for four to six hours following the injury, a period that did not jeopardize the child’s health or safety.


However, hospitals are not the only places parents need to worry about their child undergoing a CT scan.


In recent years, many dentist’s offices have adopted the use of a device called a cone-beam CT scanner, which emits significantly more radiation than other types of conventional scanning equipment, according to an 2010 investigation conducted by the New York Times. While proponents of this type of equipment argue that it provides dentists with an unparalleled 3-D image of a patient’s teeth, little independent research backs up this claim.


The Times also found that many dentist’s offices that had yet to upgrade to newer equipment were still using what had become outdated X-ray equipment that required the use of high amounts of radiation to work. Despite growing concerns over radiation exposure, many dentist’s offices across the country still rely on D-speed X-ray film, which requires approximately 60 percent more radiation to use, than slightly more expensive higher speed film that uses less radiation.


Lowering the Risks

While it’s important that children receive the lowest possible dose of radiation when undergoing a scan, it’s even more important for parents to avoid subjecting their children to any unnecessary scans to begin with. By reducing the number of occasions a child potentially undergoes a CT scan, parents can cut back on the amount of radiation a child is exposed to before turning 18.


In recent years, a growing amount of evidence has begun to suggest CT scans are unnecessary following circumstances that involve:


  • A child suffers a blunt trauma, such as a knock to the head after falling
  • To evaluate chronic headaches or seizures
  • As the primary tool used by a doctor to determine an appendicitis diagnoses

When selecting a family dentist, parents should inquire about the type of dental equipment a practice utilizes and ask about the radiation output that exam requires. If a dentist states they use D-speed film or CT scan technology, ask if the practice has a testing procedure that use lower levels of radiation for children.


In general, parents should always ask four questions of any doctor or dentist prior to agreeing to any medical exam for their children:


  1. Does the exam use radiation?
  2. Why is the exam necessary?
  3. How will the exam benefit my child?
  4. What, if any, alternatives are available that don’t use ionizing radiation?


Until a parent has the answers to each of these questions, they shouldn’t feel comfortable agreeing to any testing procedure.

A freelance writer, Timothy Lemke learned about the dangers of outdated dental X-rays from Dr. Sara Barber, a dentist in Vancouver, Washington.