A trip to the dentist can be nervewracking enough without being asked to don a heavy protective apron while having x-rays taken. Are x-rays really so dangerous that we need to put on armor against them? And what about all the other x-rays we may be subjected to over our lifetime? Coughs that won't quit may necessitate chest x-rays, while falls on pavement or concrete mean x-rays of our arms, legs, wrists, or even heads. Is all this radiation really bad for us? And is there anything we can do about it?

First, it's important to remember that we're exposed to small amounts of radiation as part of our everyday lives. According to the American College of Radiology, radon gas in our backyards accounts for the majority of our background radiation exposure. People living in mountainous regions get about 50 percent more background radiation than those near sea level. Commercial airline flights also expose us to radiation, but the amount is negligible.

Second, different parts of the body have very different degrees of sensitivity to radiation, meaning that your risk varies depending on what's being x-rayed. While a computed tomography (CAT scan) of your abdomen and pelvis gives you a radiation dose equal to three years of natural background radiation, a mammogram gives you a dose equivalent to just three months of background radiation. A bone densitometry (DEXA) scan? Less than one day's worth.

But what if you're pregnant? Are x-rays dangerous for your developing fetus? Most probably not, says the American College of Radiology. However, there may be a small risk of serious illness or other complication for the baby, depending on how far along you are and what kind of x-ray is used. X-rays of your head, chest, or extremities will generally be safer than x-rays of your midsection. If you do need an abdominal x-ray, the technician should be able to take special precautions to shield your fetus from the radiation. X-ray technologists are trained to deliver x-rays safely and with the minimum amount of radiation necessary, but if you're concerned, definitely speak to your doctor about the possibility of using another kind of test.

Since radiation doses are cumulative over a lifetime, it's a good idea to maintain accurate records of any x-rays you've had, especially if you change doctors.


Source: American College of Radiology, www.acr.org.