Radiation Sickness

Radiation sickness is damage that occurs to the body due to exposure to large doses of radiation over a short period. Radiation sickness is also known as acute radiation sickness, acute radiation syndrome or radiation poisoning.

Radiation sickness occurs when high-energy radiation causes damage or destroys cells in the human body. The regions of the body that are most vulnerable to high-energy radiation are cells in the lining of the intestinal tract, stomach, and the cells of bone marrow which produce blood cells.

There are two basic types of radiation such as ionizing and nonionizing. Nonionizing radiations are in the form of light, radio waves, microwaves, and radar. It does not cause tissue damage. Ionizing radiation produces chemical effects on human tissue within no time of exposure. X-rays, gamma rays, and particle bombardment produce ionizing radiation. The exposure to low-dose of radiation such as X-ray or CT examination does not cause radiation sickness.


Radiation sickness can be caused by exposure to high doses of radiations. The possible sources of high-dose radiations include:

  • An attack on a nuclear industry
  • An accident at a nuclear industry
  • Detonation of a small radioactive device
  • Detonation of a standard nuclear weapon
  • Detonation of a conventional explosive device


In a case of radioactive emergency, follow the protective actions of authorities who may advice you to either stay in the place where you are or to evacuate the place. This helps to minimize your risk of exposure to the radiation.


The major complication associated with radiation sickness is developing leukemia or blood cancer or any other cancers in the later stages of life.

Radiation sickness may also contribute to mental health problems such as grief, shock, and fear associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.


Treatment for radiation sickness may not be cured, but the treatment helps to relieve the symptoms. The effects of radiation cannot be reversed, but a timely treatment can help to manage the damage. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and weakness can be treated with the medications that target these complaints. Blood transfusions are required to treat anemia. Antibiotics are used in the case of infections.

Patients with cancers caused by exposure to radiation require radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Patients who undergo chemotherapy are suggested to take filgrastim to stimulate white blood cells. This helps in repairing the damage to bone marrow caused by radiation.

Your doctor may diagnose the condition of radiation sickness by performing a physical examination. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may recommend some other tests also which include:

Blood Tests : Frequent blood tests for several days help to identify a drop in white blood cells (WBC) count and abnormalities in the DNA of the blood cells. These factors can indicate the extent of bone marrow damage. 
Dosimeter : A device called a dosimeter is used to measure the absorbed dose of radiation by the body.
Survey Meter : A device called Geiger counter is used to survey and determine the location of radioactive particles in the body.

The common signs and symptoms of radiation sickness include:

  • Hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea and dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Fever and fatigue
  • Skin burns
  • Low blood pressure
  • Poor wound healing
  • Drop in blood cell count

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