5 Myths About X-rays and Why We Need Them

X-rays have been in use for over 100 years. Yet despite their safety record, there are some persistent myths about them.
Christopher McFadden
myths about x-raysgo_nils/Flickr

X-rays have been used for medical examinations for well over 100 years. Today, they are one of the most common medical imaging techniques available, and a powerful one at that.


In England, the UK, the NHS carries out more than 22 million X-ray test every single year. Millions more are also used by dentists and other doctors around the world.

The technology has developed a lot since its earlier incarnations, and modern-day X-ray machines put out very small amounts of radiation compared to earlier machines. 

Yet despite this, there is a lot of misinformation out there about X-rays. But this is understandable since the very word radiation is somewhat emotive. 

myths about x rays collage
Source: National Geographic Kids

But many shouldn't worry at all. The benefits of X-ray examinations, whilst potentially harmful (albeit negligible), far outweigh any potential risk from them.  


How do X-rays work?

X-rays are a type of high-energy radiation that has the amazing ability to penetrate clothing, body tissue and internal organs. Most soft tissues, like muscle and fat, allow the rays to pass through with ease whilst denser stuff, like bone, blocks the passage of these rays.

When a patient undergoes an X-ray examination, these denser materials, like the skeleton, cast a 'shadow' on the detector. It is these 'shadows' that doctors then use to examine and diagnose patients.

For this reason, they are an ideal tool for medical professionals to examine patients without the need to cut them open. 

What myths are there about X-rays?

Here are some common myths about X-rays that really should be put out to roost.

1. X-Rays cause cancer

myths about x-rays cancer
Source: Mikael Häggström, M.D./Wikimedia Commons

X-rays, by their very nature, are in fact potentially harmful. As X-rays pass through your body and can damage cells, namely their DNA.

Some studies have shown that this could, potentially, lead to the development of cancer. But, the dosage you receive during a single examination is comparable to the background radiation you receive every day in the environment.

Sources include things like radon gas, cosmic rays, and radiation from food. If ever fly in a plane you will receive three times the dosage from the average X-ray examination.

To put your mind at ease, if you were to have two dental X-rays every year for life, your risk of developing cancer would only be raised by 100th of a percent.

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2. X-rays make you radioactive

myths about x-rays radioactive
Source: go_nils/Flickr

There are some who believe that X-rays can make you radioactive. In this sense, it is believed that you are in some way contaminated by the process.

In fact, X-rays do not expose any patient to lingering radiation and will not expose other people to radiation following an examination. This is primarily that, by their very nature, they pass right through the body.

You would actually need to consume a radiation source to become contaminated. But, that being said, saliva and other bodily fluids can become negligibly contaminated.

It is important to bear in mind that many foods we eat are actual sources of radiation. These include things like fruit and vegetables that have absorbed radiative chemicals from the soil around them.

For this reason, we are all very slightly radioactive depending on what you have eaten throughout the day.

3. Medical and body scanners are dangerous

myths about x-rays airport
Source: Raimond Spekking/Wikimedia Commons

As you'd expect, medical scanners, CT scans and airport scanners to deliver small amounts of X-rays radiation. But, as we have seen, the risks to your health a very negligible indeed.


"If a doctor suggests you have an X-ray or CT scan the benefits to your health far outweigh any risks," says Professor Gerry Thomas, a top radiation expert from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London.

The typical airport scanner delivers around 0.00002 mSv. Background radiation exposure from just walking around, eating, drinking and breathing is around 2.4 mSv per year on average.

But, there is some concern by medical professionals when it comes to "leisure scans".

"I sometimes see adverts for private CT scans, offered to people who are fit and healthy but just want to check whether they have anything lurking. Almost like a yearly check-up with your doctor. I personally wouldn't opt for these, as you are exposing yourself to radiation to 5 years’ worth of background radiation (around 10mSv) for no clear benefit." - Professor Thomas explains.

4. Medical X-ray scans can make you infertile

You've probably heard this one before. You may even have had some concern yourself in this regard.

But this is another myth about x-rays that is a little misleading. Studies by the Radiology Society of North America (RSNA), has shown that the risks are practically zero. To date, there are no known cases of infertility being caused by X-ray and CT scans.

But even so, radiation can accumulate in the body over time from X-rays and CT scans. For this reason, patients always wear a lead-lined apron to protect reproductive organs during examinations.

This also helps, in part, reduce the total amount of radiation you are exposed to beyond what is absolutely necessary.

5. X-rays are no longer necessary and a thing of the past

myths about x-rays past
Source: Afiller/Wikimedia Commons

There are some who believe that X-rays are no longer necessary. In fact, they remain one of the most common medical imaging test performed around the world, especially in the United States.

There are thousands of X-ray machines in hospitals, medical and dental offices, and other clinics. It is, by far, the most powerful tool available to medical professionals to examine bones, teeth and some other soft tissue injuries.

As it is non-invasive and fast, it provides a lot of vital information for medical professionals to aid with diagnoses. It is likely to be with us for many years to come.

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