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Definition

Radiation is energy that is sent out from a source. It can be found in nature. It can also be manmade. Radiation exposure is when a person is exposed. It can affect health, depending on the type and amount.

There are two types:

  • Ionizing
  • Non-ionizing

Ionizing radiation can injure cells. It is linked to cancer and other health problems.

Causes

Ionizing radiation can come from:

  • X-rays and CT scans
  • Cancer treatment
  • Radon—a gas in soil or water
  • Work such as mining
  • A nuclear accident or bomb

External Radiation Therapy for Cancer
Radiation of Tumor

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Risk Factors

The risk is higher for those who are near sources of radiation.

Health problems do not happen in everyone. The higher the exposure, the more likely there will be problems.

CT scans give more radiation thanx-rays. However, the dose and risk for health problems is low with both.

Symptoms

High doses of radiation over a short period of time may cause:

  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Bleeding
  • Burns
  • Loss of organ function

Low levels may not cause symptoms. Sometimes cancers grow years after exposure. They may be:

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. Tests may be done on blood, urine, and stool.

A device may be used to check the amount of radiation in the body.

Treatment

Treatment is based on the dose of exposure, the source, and the symptoms. The goal is to ease symptoms and reduce problems. It may include:

  • Removing contaminated materials, such as clothing and shoes
  • Showering with soap and warm water
  • Taking medicines to:
    • Treat pain, vomiting, and diarrhea
    • Prevent or treat infection
    • Treat contamination inside the body
  • Having fluids and electrolytes—to prevent dehydration
  • IV nutrition—if food cannot be taken by mouth
  • Using ointments for burns and injuries

Prevention

The risk of exposure may be lowered by:

  • Following safety guidelines at work
  • Having radon tested at home
  • Talking about concerns with doctors and dentists
RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
https://www.cdc.gov

Radiation Emergency Medical Management
https://www.remm.nlm.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
http://www.nuclearsafety.gc.ca

Public Health Agency of Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Acute radiation syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-radiation-syndrome. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Frequently asked questions on potassium iodide (KI). US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm072265.htm#KI%20do. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Gross whole-body contamination. Radiation Emergency Medical Management website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/ext_contamination.htm#wholebody. Accessed February 3, 2021.

How to perform a survey for radiation contamination. Radiation Emergency Medical Management website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/howtosurvey.htm. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Radiation and potassium iodide (KI). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/japan/ki.asp. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Radiation emergency medical management: choose appropriate algorithm—evaluate for contamination and/or exposure. Radiation Emergency Medical Management website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/newptinteract.htm#skip. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Rahman N, Khan R, Badshah S. Effect of x-rays and gamma radiations on the bone mechanical properties: literature review. Cell Tissue Bank. 2018;19(4):457-472.

Sun and other types of radiation. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure.html. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David Horn, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 2/3/2021