Radiation Sickness

What is Radiation Sickness?

Radiation Sickness (radiation poisoning) is a rare condition that is caused by excessive doses of ionizing radiation. Acute radiation sickness results in immediate chemical damage to internal and external tissues. Chronic radiation sickness occurs over a period of time when regularly exposed to reduced levels.

Both can occur deliberately or accidentally and may be a result of x-rays, gamma rays, industrial accidents, cancer treatment, weapons manufacturing or usage and other sources of ionizing radiation. The risk of cancer, premature aging, serious injury and death increases as radiation levels build in the system. The severity of exposure is determined according to when it occurred, symptoms, how quickly they appeared and white blood cell count.

What are the Symptoms of Radiation Sickness?

The symptoms of radiation sickness and their severity depend on the level of exposure. Symptoms may include:

  • Lethargy
  • Weak muscles
  • Unusual bleeding
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (possibly bloody)
  • Confusion
  • Open sores in the stomach, intestines, mouth and/or esophagus
  • Easy bruising
  • Skin sloughing
  • Dehydration
  • Superficial burns and/or sores on the skin
  • Queasiness and vomiting
  • Passing out
  • Hair loss
  • Fever

How is Radiation Sickness Treated?

If vomiting occurs within an hour after exposure, death from radiation exposure may be imminent. Rescue workers must wear protective gear to avoid contamination. Treatment for radiation sickness depends on the symptoms and severity and may include:

  • Removal and sealing of clothing and accessories
  • CPR, if required
  • Thorough decontamination of the victim with soap and water
  • Drying and wrapping the victim with a clean soft cover
  • IV fluids
  • Pain management
  • Burn and lesion care
  • Oral medication for internal contamination (potassium iodide, Prussian blue, DTPA)
  • Protein-based medicine to treat bone marrow and prevent infection
  • Treatment of secondary symptoms (e.g. diarrhea, infection)
  • Psychological care
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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
August 22, 2017