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

Radiation Sickness Causes

Exposure to a dose of radiation that is high can lead to radiation sickness. Radiation is released from atoms as a small particle or a wave of energy. Industrial accidents may lead to exposure to high doses of radiation, but more common exposure occurs from lower doses of radiation, which does not cause radiation sickness.

High-dose radiation sources

There are many possible origins of high-dose radiation, including:

  • Nuclear industrial facility accidents
  • Nuclear industrial facility attacks
  • Radioactive device detonation
  • Standard nuclear weapon detonation
  • Radioactive material dispersed from a traditional explosive (also known as a dirty bomb)

When high-energy radiation destroys or damages specific cells within the body, radiation sickness has begun. Areas that have the highest level of vulnerability within the body are the cells that line the intestinal tract, the stomach, and the bone marrow that produces blood cells.

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

Radiation Sickness Prevention

To prevent radiation sickness, industrial facilities and areas should be avoided. It is important to stay away from areas of contamination. Symptoms can be prevented with treatment for burns and trauma, and pain can be managed.


An important part of preventing long-term effects of radiation sickness is decontamination, which removes as many radioactive particles from the body as possible. This step is important because it prevents the continued spreading of radioactive materials and lowers the contamination risk from ingestion, open wounds, or inhalation.

To prevent further damage to bone marrow, transfusions of blood platelets or red blood cells can be helpful in severe cases. Internal contamination can be prevented by specific treatments that reduce damage to organs within the body. Potassium iodide is a form of iodine that is nonradioactive and can prevent internal contamination if taken shortly after exposure (most effective if potassium iodide is taken within a day). Prussian blue is a dye that helps to eliminate radioactive particles; it is successful in reducing how much radiation the body absorbs. Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid prevents absorption because it binds to metals, causing the radioactive particles to leave the body through urine.

Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
December 05, 2017