Radiation sickness is a term used to describe damage caused by large, acute dose of radiation. It is also called as Acute Radiation Syndrome. Some also call it as radiation poisoning.

The radiation causes cellular degradation since the cell walls and other key molecular structures in the body are destroyed, thus causing radiation sickness. The destruction then causes symptoms and can begin in one to two hours and can last up to several months. The amount of radiation you get, how long you were exposed and which part of the body determine how sick you will be.

Exposure to low-dose radiation such as X-ray and CT examination do not cause radiation sickness. Most types of radiation are considered harmless. Any type of emitted energy is radiation. It is found everywhere, like radio waves on your car stereo, heat given by your toaster or even the light from the sun.

Ionizing radiation is the one kind of radiation that causes radiation sickness. It has a higher energy and frequency and it includes ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray energy. From the word ion, it means to destroy any atom that it hits.

Radiation sickness Causes

Radiation sickness may be due to various circumstances and may include:

  • Nuclear explosion or accident
  • Criticality accident
  • Radiotherapy accident
  • Solar flare
  • Ingestion of radioactive material
  • Excessive radiation for medical treatments
  • Detonation of a standard nuclear weapon

Radiation sickness Signs and Symptoms

The onset and type of symptoms depend on the exposure you have. Smaller doses may result in gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting and lowering blood counts due to bleeding and infection. Larger doses may result in neurological effects and may be fatal.

There are three main presentations wherein radiation sickness may be classified:

  1. Hematopoietic is marked by a reduction of blood cells and can be detected through blood tests. It may also cause poor wound healing.
  2. Gastrointestinal symptoms are described through nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and abdominal pain.
  3. Neurological/vascular presents symptoms like dizziness, headache, or decreased level of consciousness

Other symptoms may include:

  • Bleeding from nosNose Bleede, mouth, gums and rectum
  • Bruising
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Inflammation of exposed areas
  • Ulcers
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting of blood

The greater the radiation exposure, the faster and more fatal the symptom will be.

Radiation sickness First Aid

If you have family members who are exposed with radiation, you should do the following:

  • Check the person’s breathing and pulse
  • Start Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, if necessary
  • Remove the person’s clothing and place the items in a sealed container.
  • Wash the body with soap and water
  • Dry the body and wrap with soft, clean blanket
  • Ask for medical help and report exposure
  • Do not remain in area where exposure is possible
  • Do not apply ointments to burned areas

Radiation sickness Tests and Diagnosis

In case of radiation sickness, there are ways to determine absorbed doses which include:

  • Details about distance from source of radiation and duration of exposure
  • Time between radiation exposure and onset of symptoms is manifested.
  • Blood tests results in decreasing white blood cells and changes in DNA of blood cells
  • Use of dosimeter to measure the absorbed dose of radiation
  • Survey meter is used to determine the body location of radioactive particles.
  • Identifying the type of radiation exposure.

Radiation sickness Treatment

Treatment is given with the use of antibiotics, blood products, stem cell transplant and colony stimulating factors. Medications are also given to reduce presenting symptoms. The goal of the treatment is to reduce further contamination of radiation, decrease further injuries, lessen symptoms and manage pain. Some treatments for radiation sickness can lessen damage to internal organs such as potassium iodide, Prussian blue, and diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA).

Radiation sickness Complications

Exposure to radiation may lead to significantly developing complications like leukemia or cancer later in life. Short-term and long-term mental health problems may also develop due to grief, fear, and anxiety about the accident, the loss of a loved one, fear of the unknown and worries to future exposure to radiation.

Radiation sickness Prevention

There are certain precautions you can do when there is an event of radiation emergency. You should:

  • Avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation
  • Wear badges to measure exposure levels
  • Use protective shields to cover parts of the body
  • Close and lock doors and windows
  • Turn off fans, air conditioners and heating units
  • Bring pets indoors
  • Move to basement

During a radiation emergency, be sure you are equipped with the following things:

  • Flashlights
  • Portable radio
  • Batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Medicines
  • Sealed foods
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Extra clothes

To avoid radiation sickness, be sure to follow instructions from your local authorities. Stay calm and move quickly.