It's best to think of X-rays for what they are: a type of electromagnetic energy. These rays have short wavelengths, allowing them to carry a lot of energy. Yet when one considers what happens when they intercept the human body, the term ionizing radiation enters the equation.
Ionizing radiation can knock off electrons that orbit the nuclei of atoms -- sort of like if something knocked Earth from its orbit around the sun. When electrons become displaced, they create charged molecules, or atoms called ions, which can scatter and disrupt other atoms in our cells.
Cell damage from radiation can alter our DNA as well, increasing the chances of our cells mutating during replication or even turning cancerous with time. This is why doctors use only the effective dose of X-rays, or the lowest amount to get the job done during medical imaging. What's more, the radiation adds up over time, so frequency matters, too.
X-rays aren't all doom and gloom, though. Thankfully, our cells heal themselves after brief encounters. In medical contexts, X-rays provide a glimpse of bones, teeth and internal organs not visible from outside the body. They help assess breaks, fractures and abnormal growth in bones and allow doctors to track the effectiveness of surgeries. Ultimately, the benefits of receiving proper medical treatment often outweigh the risks of radiation.
It's also true that X-rays clue us in to the strange things our children and pets accidentally swallow. Next, learn which group has the largest vulnerability to X-ray radiation.