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Radiation Sickness

Radiation Sickness


Radiation sickness is caused by exposure to a large amount of radiation. This may be the result of a nuclear accident or the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Radiation sickness can be acute or chronic.

What is going on in the body?

When radiation penetrates the body, the effects are felt first in individual cells. With very high doses of radiation, many cells will die. Other cells will not be able to function normally. The tissues made up of these cells will then not function. Eventually the function of the body will break down. If the damage is great enough, the person will die. If the damage is less, the person may be very sick, but may recover. The larger the area of the body that is exposed, the more severe the disease will be.


What are the causes and risks of the disease?

A person can be exposed to radiation anywhere radioactive materials are used. This includes nuclear power plants and research labs. Other places include mines where the materials are removed. The detonation of any size nuclear device will release radioactive material.


What can be done to prevent the disease?

Preventing exposure to radiation is the only was to prevent radiation sickness.


How is the disease diagnosed?

The diagnosis can be based on the symptoms and a person's report of radiation exposure. The diagnosis is harder if the person doesn't know of any exposure. The symptoms may indicate a variety of illnesses. In that case, the diagnosis is made when a careful history reveals exposure to radiation.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the disease?

Sometimes cancers caused by radiation can occur many years after exposure. Late effects may include being unable to have children, frequent infections, and chronic fatigue. The fatigue and infection may be related to a low number of red blood cells and white blood cells being produced in the bone marrow. The person may have other problems depending on what part of the body is affected. The damage to the affected part may be permanent.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

A person who is contaminated with radioactive materials can expose others. Contaminated materials must be handled by specially trained people. Once the radioactive material has been removed, the person will not spread radiation.


What are the treatments for the disease?

Treatment is designed to support the person until the body can heal itself. Medications are given to treat the symptoms. Potassium iodide (i.e., SSKI) is used for exposure to radioactive iodine and magnesium sulfate is used for exposure to radioactive phosphorous. Otherwise, there are no medications that can prevent or reverse the damage caused by radiation.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

There are few side effects of treatment. Most treatments are given to make the person feel better.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the disease?

Even if the person recovers, there may be effects that happen months or years later. The person should receive long-term monitoring.


How is the disease monitored?

A person who has been exposed to radiation will be followed closely. Laboratory studies of blood samples, including a CBC or complete blood count, will reveal how well the body is working. Physical exams will also be done to check for the development of late effects.


Beers, M.H.&Berkow, R. (Eds) (1999). Radiation Reactions and Injuries in Merck Manual, 17th Edition. Merck&Co., Inc.: Rahway, NJ. Section 20.

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