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Radiation Sickness Information and Facts

  • Synopsis: Published: 2011-03-15 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-29) - Information including treatment and symptoms of exposure to harmful dosages of ionizing radiation levels - Thomas C. Weiss (Disabled World).

Main Document

Quote: "A person's risk of developing cancer due to radiation exposure is dependent upon the dose they have received and starts to build even at very low doses..."

Radiation sickness is a type of illness with symptoms that are a result of excessive exposure to radiation.

The exposure to radiation may be either accidental, or intentional - such as through radiation therapy. There are two forms of radiation; non-ionizing and ionizing. Non-ionizing radiation comes in the form of microwaves, radio waves, light, or radar. Non-ionizing radiation commonly does not inflict damage to a person's tissues.

Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, is radiation that creates an immediate effect on a person's tissues. Gama rays, X rays, as well as particle bombardment through electron beams, neutron beams, mesons, protons, and other forms, emit ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation might be used for industrial or manufacturing reasons. It might also be used for medical applications such as testing and treatment purposes. Ionizing radiation can also be used for military purposes in weaponry, weapons development and other military applications.

Radiation sickness happens when people or animals are exposed to very large dosages of ionizing radiation. Exposure to radiation might happen as a single, large exposure referred to as, 'acute,' or a series of smaller exposure over a period of time - something that is referred to as, 'chronic.' Radiation sickness is often times associated with acute exposure and a characteristic set of symptoms that appear in a rather orderly way. Chronic exposure is commonly associated with medical issues that are delayed. These medical problems can include premature aging, as well as cancer; both of which occur over an extended period of time.

A person's risk of developing cancer due to radiation exposure is dependent upon the dose they have received and starts to build even at very low doses. There is no minimum threshold. Exposure from either gamma rays or x-rays is measured in units referred to as, 'roentgens.'

A total body exposure of 100 roentgens (or 1 Gy) causes radiation sickness. A total body exposure of 400 roentgens (or 4 Gy) causes radiation sickness and death in fifty-percent of people. Unless they receive medical treatment, almost everyone who receives this amount of exposure to radiation dies within a period of thirty days. Exposure to one-hundred thousand rads causes nearly immediate unconsciousness and death within a period of one hour.

The severity of the symptoms and illness, or acute radiation sickness, a person experiences is dependent upon the amount and type of radiation they have been exposed to. It is also dependent upon the length of time the person was exposed to radiation, and which part of their body was exposed. The symptoms a person experiences due to radiation sickness can happen immediately after they have been exposed. The symptoms can also occur over a period of a few days, or even weeks or months.

Due to the fact that it is difficult to determine the amount of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents, the best signs of the severity of a person's exposure to radiation include:

  • The severity of the person's symptoms
  • The severity of changes in the person's white blood cells
  • The length of time between the exposure and the onset of the person's symptoms

If someone who has been exposed to radiation vomits less than an hour after being exposed, it usually means the dose of radiation they have received is very high and they will most likely die.

Children who either receive radiation treatments or who accidentally get exposed to radiation are treated based upon both their blood cell counts and the symptoms they are experiencing. Children who have been exposed to radiation require frequent blood studies, as well as blood sampling.

Symptoms of Radiation Sickness

  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Bruising
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Bloody stool
  • Dehydration
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Vomiting blood
  • Sloughing of skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Open sores on the skin
  • Skin burns, to include redness, blistering
  • Ulcers in the esophagus, stomach or intestines
  • Bleeding from the nose, mouth, gums, and rectum
  • Inflammation of exposed areas to include redness, tenderness, swelling, bleeding

A doctor can provide the best advice on how to treat these symptoms. Medications might be prescribed to assist in reducing the pain, nausea, and vomiting a person experiences. Antibiotics can be used to prevent or fight infections. Blood transfusions can be given for anemia.

First Aid for Radiation Sickness and Exposure

Remember - it is important that you only provide medical care if you have appropriate protective gear to prevent contaminating yourself! To provide first aid to someone who has been exposed to radiation, take the following steps:

  • Check the person's breathing and pulse.
  • Start CPR, if necessary.
  • Have the person remove their clothing and put their clothes in a sealed container. Doing so stops ongoing contamination.
  • Vigorously wash the person's body with soap and water.
  • Dry the the person's body and wrap them with a soft, clean blanket.
  • Call for emergency medical help and take the person to the nearest emergency medical facility.
  • Report the radiation exposure to emergency officials immediately!

If the person's symptoms happen either during or after medical radiation treatments, tell the health care provider or seek medical treatment. Be sure to handle any affected areas gently, and treat the symptoms or illness as a doctor recommends.

  • Do Not stay in the clothing that is contaminated.
  • Do Not wait to seek emergency medical treatment.
  • Do Not stay in the area where the radiation exposure happened.
  • Do Not apply any ointments to areas of your body that have been burned.

Always avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation. People who work in radiation hazard areas need to wear badges that measure their exposure to radiation levels. Protective shields should always be placed over the parts of a person's body that are are not being treated or studied during radiation therapy or x-ray imaging tests.

Radiation Definitions

  • Radioactive Contamination and Radiation Exposure : Radioactive contamination and radiation exposure may happen if radioactive materials are released into the environment because of a natural event, an accident, or an act of terrorism. A release of radiation might expose people and contaminate both their personal property and their surroundings.
  • Radioactive Contamination: Radioactive contamination happens when radioactive material is deposited on or in a person or object. Radioactive materials that are released into the environment might cause water, air, soil, surfaces, buildings, plants, animals, or people to become contaminated. A person who is contaminated has radioactive materials either inside of their body or on it.
  • External Contamination: External contamination happens when radioactive materials in the form of powder, dust, or liquid, comes in contact with a person's clothing, skin, or hair. People who are contaminated externally may become contaminated internally should the radioactive material get inside of them.
  • Internal Contamination: Internal radiation contamination happens when people either breathe or swallow radioactive materials, or when these materials enter their bodies through open wounds or get absorbed through their skin. Some forms of radioactive materials remain in a person's body and get deposited in various organs. Other forms of radioactive materials are eliminated from a person's body through urine, blood, feces, or sweat.
  • Radiation Exposure: Radioactive materials emit a type of energy that travels in either particles or waves. The energy is referred to as, 'radiation.' When someone is exposed to radiation, it penetrates their body.

People who have been exposed to radiation are not necessarily contaminated with radioactive materials. Someone who has been exposed to radiation has had radioactive particles or waves penetrate their body, such as through an x-ray. For a person to become contaminated, the radioactive material must be either inside of the person's body, or on it. Someone who is not contaminated can become contaminated with radioactive material through exposure to a person, place, or thing that is contaminated.

Related Information:

  1. Potassium Iodide (KI) Information
  2. Tips to Protect Against Excess Radiation Exposure
  3. Statement Regarding Fears of Radiation Exposure to North America


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