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Radiation Exposure(Ionizing Radiation Exposure)
Definition

Radiation is energy that is sent out from a source. Radiation exposure occurs when a person is exposed to this energy.

There are different forms of radiation. Some come from nature and some are manmade. There are the ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. There is also the radiation used in microwaves to heat food. Radiation is divided into:

  • Ionizing radiation—a high-frequency radiation that is able to damage cells, has also been linked to cancer and other health problems
  • Nonionizing radiation—low in frequency and is not known to cause cancer (except for UV rays)
Ionizing RadiationNonionizing Radiation
Gamma raysVisible light
X-raysInfrared rays
UV rays (high-energy)Microwaves
Sub-atomic particlesRadio waves
UV rays (low-energy)

Here we focus on ionizing radiation.

Causes

A person can be exposed to ionizing radiation from:

  • X-rays
  • Radiation therapy used to treat certain types of cancer
  • Radioactive elements in the soil or public works systems (eg, water supply)
  • Workplace environment (eg, uranium mines)
  • Radiation from nuclear disasters

External Radiation of a Cancerous Growth

Radiation of Tumor

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

You are at risk for radiation exposure if you are near sources that generate it.

Ionizing radiation has been linked to health problems. But not all people exposed develop problems. For example, having a chest x-ray does expose you to some radiation. But the dose is low and your risk for health problems is low. Other tests, like CT scans, expose you to higher doses. Health effects risk from CT scans , while still small, is higher than the risk from a regular x-ray .

The greater the exposure, the more likely there will be health effects. For example, doctors treat some cancers with high doses of radiation. This not only kills cancer cells, but also healthy cells. Also, people exposed to large nuclear accidents can be injured by the high amounts of radiation.

Cancer

There is also the risk of cancer. Cancer may take years to develop after you have been exposed to radiation. Some cancers linked with ionizing radiation exposure are:

Symptoms

Exposure can cause radiation sickness, which may include these symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Bleeding
  • Burns
  • Loss of organ functions
Diagnosis

The healthcare team will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and medical history
  • Do a physical exam

They may also:

  • Do blood, stool, and urine tests
  • Measure the amount of radiation absorbed by your body using a radiation survey meter
Treatment

If you have been contaminated, the doctors and nurses will help remove the material from you so it will stop damaging your cells. You may be bathed in lukewarm water and soap. Your radiation levels will also be monitored.

If you have radiation sickness, you will be monitored and treated closely while your body heals. Treatment depends on what parts of your body are damaged.

Radioactive iodine can be absorbed by your thyroid gland. This can injure the gland and lead to thyroid cancer. To block your body from absorbing this type of radiation, you may be treated with potassium iodine .

Prevention

There are policies to prevent the public from dangerous levels of radiation. Safety measures are taken when it is used for medical treatment or is part of a work environment. But the best prevention is to stay away from its sources.

RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
http://www.cdc.gov/

Radiation Emergency Medical Management United States Department of Health and Human Services
http://www.remm.nlm.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

BC Centre for Disease Control
http://www.bccdc.ca/

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/

References:

Brenner DJ. Should we be concerned about the rapid increase in CT usage? Rev Environ Health . 2010;25(1):63-68. Review.

Colang JE, Killion JB, Vano E. Patient dose from CT: a literature review. Radiol Technol . 2007;79(1):17-26. Review.

Frequently asked questions on potassium iodide (KI). United States Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm072265.htm#KI%20do . Updated March 18, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2011.

Gross whole-body contamination. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.remm.nlm.gov/ext_contamination.htm#wholebody . Updated March 14, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2011.

Health effects. Radiation protection. United States Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/health_effects.html . Updated March 24, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2011.

How to perform a survey for radiation contamination. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.remm.nlm.gov/howtosurvey.htm . Updated March 14, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2011.

Potassium iodide (KI). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp . Updated March 17, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2011.

Radiation emergency medical management: choose appropriate algorithm—evaluate for contamination and/or exposure. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.remm.nlm.gov/newptinteract.htm#skip . Updated March 14, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2011.

Radiation exposure and cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/medicaltreatments/radiation-exposure-and-cancer . Updated March 29, 2010. Accessed March 30, 2011.



Last reviewed June 2013 by Igor Puzanov, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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