Hospitals and doctors have reduced their use of x-rays on young patients in recent years, recognizing that kids are more vulnerable to the impact of radiation. However, dental offices haven't followed suit, and an investigation by the New York Times says that's bad news. Of particular concern? A cone-beam CT scanner that is used by dental offices to take 3-D images of teeth, roots and more.

X-ray risks

So, are dental x-rays risky? It depends on what is being x-rayed, experts say. "The radiation exposure for simple x-rays is fairly low. A chest or extremity film with 1-3 views is like flying on a plane for 10 minutes or a day's worth of living on this planet," explains Dr. Andy Clark, pediatrician and medical expert on

But the CTs being used in some dental visits for kids are a different story. They expose patients to much more radiation, says Clark. "A CT scan is like 70 days as are fluoroscopic procedures like an upper GI series," says Clark.

When to get scanned

While it might be tempting to eschew all scans for your kids, sometimes they are necessary. When are CTs worthwhile for your kids? Well, it really depends on the urgency of the situation. "One must balance the risk of a non-radiographic study (say, a sonogram for appendicitis vs. a CT scan) when time and accuracy are of the essence. I'd have the CT every time in certain cases where it is an emergency since the new CT machines are so fast and accurate," says Clark.

The genetic factor

Some research also suggests that there is a genetic connection that could make scans more risky. "There are a number of genes that are involved in protecting a person (including children) from damage caused by radiation, such as x-rays. A subset of the population, however, contains changes within these genes and therefore their body is much more vulnerable to radiation and these individuals are much more likely to get cancer following such exposure," says Brandon Colby, M.D., who practices predictive medicine in Los Angeles and is the author of Outsmart Your Genes.

So, x-rays -- even for dental care -- can pose a risk for those who are genetically predisposed to cancer. "For example, changes in at least five genes, including the infamous BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, cause a person to be extra-sensitive to radiation such that any radiation exposure, even low-dose exposure from dental x-rays, is like throwing gasoline onto a fire when it comes to breast cancer risk -- the risk shoots up significantly," says Colby.

Does this all talk of cancer risks seem a little too far in the future? It's not. "It's now been found that the damage from even low-dose radiation exposure can persist for as much as 30 years following exposure," says Colby.

More on dental health for kids

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Preparing your child for the dentist

Afraid of the dentist? A dental coward's survival guide