Radiation poisoning (also called radiation sickness or acute radiation syndrome (ARS)) is a damage caused to your body by large doses of radiation, usually received over a short period of time.
Who gets it?
Radiation poisoning is rare. In history, it happened in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II. Since then cases have been described after nuclear industrial accidents (like in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine).
Today the 2 main ways to get exposed are accidentally like in a nuclear power plant accident, or when you are exposed to radiation for medical treatments (like in cancer treatment).
What causes it?
Radiation poisoning occurs when high-energy radiation damages or destroys certain cells in your body. There are regions in the body more vulnerable to radiation. Those are regions in which the cells die and are reborn in a rapid fashion (they have a high turnover). Examples of such cells include those that line your intestines, white blood cells (responsible for fighting infection), and the cells that make your blood cells, located in your bone marrow.
How does it feel?
The symptoms are related to the damage. Early symptoms relate to the types of cells mentioned above. For example – damage to the intestinal cells causes nausea, vomiting and dehydration (like was seen on the House episode). Damage to white blood cells leads to deficiency of white blood cells (also seen on the show), which can lead to infections (or to other things, like was seen on the show).
The main symptoms include:
These symptoms can start within minutes to days after exposure. They last for minutes up to days, and may come and go. The person may look fine for a short time, and then become sick again. The seriously ill stage may last from a few hours to several months.
They may also have skin damage – it can include swelling, itching, and redness of the skin.
Other symptoms may include headaches, shortness of breath, anemia, hair loss and other things. If the radiation was very high, death can also occur.
If there is continued exposure to radiation, tumors can arise in the body.
How is it discovered?
Life isn’t always a House episode, where things are vague and discovered by pure wits. Usually when a person was exposed to radiation they will know it. If not, there are measures that help diagnose the condition, such as a device called a Geiger counter, that surveys people to determine the body location of radioactive exposure.
A Geiger counter. Photo by Boffy b
How is it treated?
There is no specific treatment. Treatment is usually aimed at helping the patient deal with the symptoms until the body recovers. This includes things like anti-nausea drugs and painkillers. Antibiotics may be used to fight infections. Other measures may be needed as well, depending on the symptoms.
What happens after treatment?
The chance of survival decreases with increasing radiation dose. Most people who don’t recover will die within several months. They usually die as a result of infections and bleedings (since the cells creating white blood cells (that fight infections) and platelets (that control bleeding) are damaged).
If someone survives radiation poisoning, the recovery can last from several weeks up to 2 years.
The bottom line – How do I avoid it?
Avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation
If you work in a place that is a radiation hazard wear badges to measure your exposure level
Always place protective shields over the parts of the body not being treated or examined during x-ray imaging tests or radiation therapy