April 25, 2018

X-Ray Exposure: Safety, Risks, and Side Effects

X-rays, or routine radiography, are a naturally occurring type of electromagnetic radiation. While X-rays are technically classified as carcinogenic, or in other words capable of causing cancer, there is virtually universal agreement among healthcare experts that the benefits of X-rays as a diagnostic tool far outweigh the risks.

Without X-rays, the only way to assess many kinds of injuries or illnesses would be with exploratory surgery, and any surgical procedure comes with risks of its own. One study by the American Journal of Clinical Oncology questions whether the proper use of X-ray imaging raises the risk of cancer at all.

What Do X-Rays Do?

When they are used in medical imaging, a beam is directed at an area of the body and captured behind that area by a detector or film. An image is produced based on the differing amounts of radiation absorbed by the bone and tissue that the X-rays pass through.

Side Effects of X-ray Exposure

One of the reasons that X-ray imaging is considered safe is that the effects of X-ray exposure have been studied in detail. Imaging experts know exactly how much radiation is delivered in the many imaging procedures. And, the procedures used to capture the images include safeguards that keep other areas of the body from being exposed to the X-rays.

While there is an extremely low risk of short-term side effects, exposure to high radiation levels can have a range of effects including vomiting, fainting, and hair loss.

So, even though X-ray exposure has been linked to a slightly increased cancer risk, X-rays provide such a low dose of radiation per image that they are not thought to present any immediate risk, especially when used infrequently and only when medically necessary.

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Associated Risks

The specific risk depends heavily on the type of procedure and the area being examined. In general, the benefits of X-rays far outweigh the risk.


One of the situations that understandably raises additional concerns about the safety of X-rays is their use during pregnancy. If you are trying to get pregnant, think you might be pregnant or are pregnant, it is important that you let your doctor know before you have an X-ray. You should also talk with your doctor if you had an X-ray before you knew you were pregnant.

X-ray imaging of the head, teeth, chest, arms, and legs won’t expose your reproductive organs or a fetus to radiation. An abdominal X-ray will expose your baby to the imaging radiation. The risk of harm to your baby from an abdominal X-ray depends on the radiation dose and your baby’s gestational age. Your doctor can provide more details and help you understand the risks of the procedure versus its benefits.


The risk of X-ray stems from mutations in the DNA that radiation exposure can cause, which may lead to cancer later in life. It is estimated that only 0.4% of cancers worldwide can be linked to medical imaging exposure.

X-Ray Safety

The diagnostic value of X-rays far outweigh any potential danger, but it is important to prepare for your X-ray with the proper X-ray safety tips. For the safest experience possible, a physician may ask you to prepare for an X-ray in several ways. Some of these may include:

  • Wearing a gown
  • Wearing a leaded apron and collar for added protection
  • Removing jewelry, eyeglasses, or any metal objects 
  • If necessary, taking a contrast medium prior to the x-ray

Learn More About X-Ray Safety with Baptist Health

If you have questions or concerns about your safety during an x-ray, contact the Baptist Health Imaging and Diagnostics team today to schedule an appointment.


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