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radiation sickness

Alternative Names 
Radiation Poisoning

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.

The acute form of the disease can develop quickly, within a few hours or days of exposure. A person with acute radiation sickness has usually been exposed to large amounts of radiation over a very brief period of time. This happens in the case of a nuclear plant accident or a nuclear bomb explosion.

It may take several days or weeks to develop the chronic form of the disease. A person with chronic radiation sickness has usually been exposed to lower doses over a longer period of time. This happens in the case of radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion or accident. It may also be caused by long-term exposure to radiation in the workplace.

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 signs and symptoms of the disease? 
The symptoms of acute radiation sickness include: Death may follow quickly after massive exposure.

The symptoms of chronic radiation sickness include:
  • hair loss
  • low levels of white and red blood cells
  • frequent infections
  • skin ulcers
  • fatigue
  • cataracts
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.

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.

What are the risks to others? 
A person who is contaminated with radioactive materials will 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. There is no medication that can prevent or reverse the damage caused by radiation.

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.

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 FBC or full blood count, will reveal how well the body is working. Physical examinations will also be done to check for the development of late effects.

Author: Miriam P. Rogers, EdD, RN, AOCN, CNS
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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