Radiation Sickness, Radiation Poisoning

Radiation sickness is illness and symptoms as a result of excessive exposure to radiation, whether that exposure is accidental or intentional (as in radiation therapy). The term also includes the side effects of exposure to radiation.

  • External radiation. Occurs when either part of, or all of, the body is exposed from an external source. For example, when a person is standing near the site where a radiological device is set off and is exposed to radiation. It can be absorbed by the body. Or it can pass completely through it.

  • Contamination. Occurs when radioactive materials are released into the air. These are in the form of solids, liquids or gases. They contaminate people externally, internally or both. This happens when body parts such as the skin become contaminated. It can also happen if the harmful material gets inside the body via the lungs, intestines or wounds.

Radiation is normally classified into ionizing and non-ionizing types.

  • Non-ionizing radiation. Known as light, radio waves, microwaves and radar. These types of radiation generally do not cause tissue damage.

  • Ionizing radiation. Radiation that produces immediate chemical effects (ionization) on human tissue. It includes:

  • X-rays.

  • Gamma rays.

  • Particle bombardment (neutron beam, electron beam, protons, mesons, and others).

This type of radiation can be used for:

  • Medical testing and treatment.

  • Industrial testing.

  • Manufacturing.

  • Sterilization.

  • Weapons and weapons development.

  • Many other uses.

Radiation sickness results when humans (or other animals) are exposed to excessive doses of ionizing radiation. Radiation exposure can occur as a single large exposure (acute). Or it can happen as a series of small exposures spread over time (chronic).

Radiation sickness is generally associated with acute exposure. It has a characteristic set of symptoms that appear in an orderly fashion. Chronic exposure is usually associated with delayed medical problems such as cancer and premature aging. These may happen over a long period of time.

  • The degree of illness (acute radiation sickness) is dependent on the dose and the rate of exposure. As a rule, incorporation of radioactive material occurs when body cells, tissues and organs such as bone, liver, thyroid or kidney, are contaminated.

  • Gamma radiation can travel many meters in the air and many centimeters once in human tissue. So they represent a major external threat. Dense material is needed as a shield.

  • Beta radiation can travel meters in air. It can moderately penetrate human skin. But clothing and some protection can help.

  • Alpha radiation travels a very short distance through the air. It cannot penetrate the skin. But it can be harmful if:

  • Inhaled.

  • Swallowed.

  • Absorbed through open wounds.

  • Radiation in the first hour after an explosion is about 90 percent. It goes down to about 1 percent of the original level after two days. Radiation only drops to trace levels after 300 hours.

  • Total body exposure of 100 roentgens causes radiation sickness.

  • Total body exposure of 400 roentgens causes radiation sickness and death in half of the individuals exposed.

  • 100,000 rads causes almost immediate unconsciousness and death within an hour.

  • The severity of symptoms and illness depends on the:

  • Type and amount of radiation.

  • Duration of the exposure.

  • Body areas exposed.

Symptoms of radiation sickness usually do not occur immediately following exposure.

  • It is difficult to determine the amount of radiation exposure from accidents. The best indications of the severity of the exposure are the:

  • Length of time between the exposure and the onset of symptoms.

  • Severity of symptoms.

  • Severity of changes in white blood cells.

  • Children who receive radiation treatments or who are accidentally exposed to radiation will be treated based on their:

  • Symptoms.

  • Blood cell counts.

Frequent blood studies are needed. A small puncture through the skin into a vein is required to obtain blood samples.


The causes include:

  • Accidental exposure to high doses of radiation, such as in certain occupations.

  • Exposure to excessive radiation for medical treatments. These may include:

  • Excessively high doses.

  • Excessive time of exposure.

  • Excessive body areas exposed.


People in the immediate area would likely die from the force of the conventional explosion itself. Some survivors of the blast might die of radiation poisoning in the weeks afterward. Those farther away from the explosion might suffer radiation sickness in the days and weeks afterward. But they would recover. Over time, risks of cancer in the affected area would rise, but perhaps only slightly.

A mix of physical symptoms must be used to judge the seriousness of exposure. Impact of radiation poisoning also changes if the body has experienced burns or physical trauma. In the case of treatable victims, extensive medical treatment may be needed for more than two months after exposure.

Some symptoms may include:

  • Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting blood.

  • Skin burns (redness, blistering), and open sores on the skin.

  • Weakness, fatigue, exhaustion, fainting.

  • Dehydration.

  • Inflammation of exposed areas (redness, tenderness, swelling, bleeding).

  • Hair loss.

  • Headache.

  • Ulceration of the oral mucosa, esophagus, stomach or intestines.

  • Bloody stool, diarrhea.

  • Bleeding from the nose, mouth, gums, and rectum.

  • Bruising.

  • Sloughing of skin.

Your caregiver will advise you how best to treat these symptoms. He may prescribe:

  • Medications to help reduce nausea, vomiting, and pain.

  • Blood transfusions for anemia.

  • Antibiotics to prevent or fight infections.


Only provide medical care if you have appropriate protective gear to prevent possible contamination.

  • Check for adequate breathing and circulation.

  • Start CPR if necessary.

  • Remove clothing.

  • Vigorously wash body with soap and water.

  • Dry body. Wrap with a soft, clean blanket.

  • Call for emergency medical assistance. Or transport to nearest emergency medical facility.


If symptoms occur during or after medical radiation treatments:

  • Notify physician or seek medical treatment.

  • Handle affected areas gently.

  • Treat symptoms or illnesses as advised by a physician.

If detection and decontamination occur soon after exposure, about 95 percent of external radioactive material can be removed. This is done by taking off the victim's clothing and shoes and washing with water. Further decontamination may require the use of bleaches or other mild abrasives.

Treatment of a victim within the first 6 weeks to 2 months after exposure is vital. It is determined by the types of radioactive isotopes to which the victim was exposed.

Medical personnel will treat victims for hemorrhage and shock. Open wounds are usually irrigated to cleanse them of any radioactive traces. Amputation of limbs may occur if:

  • A wound is highly contaminated.

  • Functional recovery is not likely.

If radioactive material is ingested, treatment is given to:

  • Reduce absorption.

  • Enhance excretion and elimination.

Among other things, it includes:

  • Stomach pumping.

  • Giving the victim laxatives or aluminum antacids.

If radioactive material has gotten into a victim's internal organs and tissues, treatment includes giving the patient various blocking and diluting agents, such as potassium iodide, to decrease absorption. Mobilizing agents are given to a patient. Examples include ammonium chloride, diuretics, expectorants and inhalants. These are to force the tissues to release the harmful isotopes. Other treatments involve chelating agents. When ingested, these agents bind with some metals more strongly than others. They form a stable complex that, when soluble, is more easily excreted through the kidneys.


  • DO NOT remain in the area where exposure occurred.

  • DO NOT apply ointments to burned areas.

  • DO NOT remain in contaminated clothing.

  • DO NOT minimize the potential danger -- radiation exposure is dangerous!

  • DO NOT hesitate to seek emergency medical treatment.


  • Avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation sources.

  • Always use "shields" over parts of the body not being treated or studied when receiving x-rays or radiation treatments.

In times of an emergency much of this material may not apply when it comes to specialized care and testing. These are some guidelines to help you when that care is not available. Some of this information is very technical and difficult to understand. But hopefully someone will be available for help in treatment and understanding.