Radiation sickness is damage to your body caused by a very large dose of radiation often received over a short period of time (acute). The amount of radiation absorbed by the body — the absorbed dose — determines how sick you'll be.
Radiation sickness is also called acute radiation sickness, acute radiation syndrome or radiation poisoning. Common exposures to low-dose radiation, such as X-ray or CT examinations, do not cause radiation sickness.
Although radiation sickness is serious and often fatal, it's rare. Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, most cases of radiation sickness have happened after nuclear industrial accidents, such as the 1986 nuclear reactor accident at a power station in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
The severity of signs and symptoms of radiation sickness depends on how much radiation you've absorbed. How much you absorb depends on the strength of the radiated energy and the distance between you and the source of radiation.
Absorbed dose and duration of exposure
Signs and symptoms of radiation sickness usually appear when the entire body receives an absorbed dose of at least 1 Gy. Doses greater than 6 Gy to the whole body are generally not treatable and usually lead to death within two days to two weeks, depending on the dose and duration of the exposure.
Initial signs and symptoms
After the first round of signs and symptoms, a person with radiation sickness may have a brief period with no apparent illness, followed by the onset of new, more serious symptoms.
In general, the greater your radiation exposure, the more rapid and more severe your symptoms will be.
Source: Adapted from "Bushberg JT. Radiation exposure and contamination. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals" and "Upton AC. Radiation injury. In: Goldman L, et al., eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2007."
When to see a doctor
If you know you've been exposed to radiation, seek emergency medical care.
Radiation is the energy released from atoms as either a wave or a tiny particle of matter. Radiation sickness is caused by exposure to a high dose of radiation, such as a high dose of radiation received during an industrial accident. Common exposures to low-dose radiation, such as X-ray examinations, do not cause radiation sickness.
Sources of high-dose radiation
Radiation sickness occurs when high-energy radiation damages or destroys certain cells in your body. Regions of the body most vulnerable to high-energy radiation are cells in the lining of your intestinal tract, including your stomach, and the blood cell-producing cells of bone marrow.
Tests and diagnosis
When a person has experienced known or probable exposure to a high dose of radiation from an accident or attack, medical personnel take a number of steps to determine the absorbed radiation dose. This information is essential for determining how severe the illness is likely to be, which treatments to use and whether a person is likely to survive.
Information important for determining an absorbed dose includes:
Radiation sickness itself doesn't cause long-term medical problems for those who survive the illness. However, the radiation exposure that caused the immediate radiation sickness does significantly increase a person's risk of developing cancer later in life.
Having radiation sickness could also contribute to both short-term and long-term mental health problems, such as grief, fear and anxiety about:
Treatments and drugs
Radiation sickness treatment is aimed at preventing further radioactive contamination, managing organ damage, reducing symptoms and managing pain.
Decontamination at the start of radiation sickness treatment prevents further distribution of radioactive materials and lowers the risk of internal contamination from inhalation, ingestion or open wounds.
Treatment for damaged bone marrow
If you have severe damage to bone marrow, radiation sickness treatment may also include transfusions of red blood cells or blood platelets.
Treatment for internal contamination
Last Updated: 2011-03-17
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