Radiation Sickness: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

What is Radiation Sickness?

Radiation sickness is a condition where there is damage to the body occurring as a result of large doses of radiation received by the body over a short period of time. The severity of the sickness depends on the amount of radiation and the dosage of the radiation, which is absorbed by the body. Radiation sickness also goes by the names of acute radiation syndrome, acute radiation sickness or radiation poisoning. Radiation sickness is a rare condition; however, it is quite a serious condition and can be potentially life threatening. Exposure to low-doses/amount of radiation occurring during investigations such as x-ray or CT scans is quite common and does not cause radiation sickness.

What is Radiation Sickness?

Causes of Radiation Sickness

Radiation is the energy released from atoms in the form of a tiny particle of matter or a wave. The cause of radiation sickness is exposure to high doses of radiation, such as seen in industrial accidents. Some of the common cases of exposures to low-dose radiation are seen during CT scans and x-rays, which do not cause radiation sickness. A person experiences radiation sickness when the high-energy radiation destroys or damages certain cells in the body. Some of the regions of the body which are highly vulnerable to high-energy radiation are the cells which line the stomach, intestinal tract and the bone marrow cells. Some of the sources of high-dose radiation include:

  • An attack on a nuclear industrial facility.
  • Accident occurring at a nuclear industrial facility.
  • Detonation of a conventional explosive device (dirty bomb) which releases radioactive particles.
  • Detonation of a standard nuclear weapon.
  • Detonation of a small radioactive device.

Signs & Symptoms of Radiation Sickness

As mentioned above, the intensity of the signs and symptoms of radiation sickness depends on the amount of radiation absorbed by the body, which in turn depends on the strength/dose of the radiation and the distance present between the source of radiation and the person affected. The type and severity of the symptoms of radiation sickness also depend on the following:

Symptoms of Radiation Sickness

Symptoms Based on Type of Radiation Exposure

Symptoms also depend on the type of exposure, such as if the exposure is total or partial in the body and if the contamination occurring is external or internal. Signs and symptoms also depend on the degree of sensitivity of the body’s affected tissue, to the radiation. For example, the cells of the bone marrow and gastrointestinal system are extremely sensitive to radiation.

Symptoms Based on Duration of Exposure and the Absorbed Dose of Radiation

The amount of the absorbed radiation is measured in a unit known as gray (Gy). Investigations, such as x-rays, which use radiation, consists of a small dose of radiation which are usually below 0.1 Gy and are focused on a small amount of tissue or some specific organs. Patient experiences symptoms of radiation sickness when the entire body receives or absorbs a radiation dose of a minimum of 1 Gy. Radiation doses which are more than 10 Gy affecting the whole body are often untreatable and will usually lead to death of the patient in a couple of days to two weeks, all depending on the duration of the exposure and the dose of radiation.

Early Signs & Symptoms of Radiation Sickness

  • The early signs and symptoms of treatable radiation sickness include nausea and vomiting.
  • The amount of radiation absorbed can be determined by the duration of the time passed between the exposure to the radiation and the development of the patient’s symptoms.
  • After the aforementioned initial symptoms of nausea and vomiting, the patient who has radiation sickness will experience a brief period of time where he/she has no apparent illness.
  • This is then followed by development of new and more severe symptoms.
  • Generally the greater the amount of your radiation exposure, the more is the severity and the rate of development of the symptoms.

Ways to Determine the Amount of Radiation Absorbed

When someone has experienced known or potential exposure to high doses of radiation, either during attack or as a result of accident, then there are number of steps taken to determine the dose of the absorbed radiation. This is vital to assess the severity of the illness and to decide on the treatment needed and for finding out the chances of the patient’s survival. Information needed for determining the amount of the absorbed radiation dose is:

  • Time between the occurrence of symptoms like vomiting and exposure to radiation is quite an accurate tool for determining the radiation dose which is absorbed. The shorter the duration of time before the appearance of the symptoms, the higher the dose of radiation. The timing and severity of symptoms also help in calculating the absorbed radiation dose.
  • The severity of radiation sickness can also be determined by calculating the distance from the radiation source and the duration of exposure.
  • Blood tests can be done to check for decrease in the white blood cells and any abnormal changes in the DNA of the blood cells. All these will indicate the degree of the damage to the bone marrow, which occurs according to the amount of the absorbed radiation dose.
  • Survey meter includes devices, such as a Geiger counter, which help in examining the patient for determining the site in the body where radioactive particles are present.
  • Dosimeter is a device which helps in measuring the dose of the radiation, which is absorbed.

Treatment for Radiation Sickness

The aim of treatment for radiation sickness is to manage pain, reduce symptoms, treat injuries which are life-threatening, such as from trauma and burns along with preventing further radioactive contamination. Treatment also depends on the type of radiation suffered by the affected individual.

Treatment by Decontamination in Radiation Sickness

  • Decontamination is the process where the external radioactive particles are removed as much as possible. About 90% of external contamination is eliminated by removing the shoes and clothing.
  • Washing the affected areas with soap and water also helps in removing the radiation particles present in the skin.
  • Decontamination also helps in preventing further spread of the radioactive materials and also reduces the risk of internal contamination from ingestion, inhalation or open wounds.

Treatment for Damaged Bone Marrow in Radiation Sickness

  • Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor is a protein, which helps in boosting the growth of white blood cells, which can further help in countering the effect of radiation sickness on the bone marrow.
  • Medications which comprise of this protein include sargramostim, filgrastim and pegfilgrastim. These medications help in promoting the production of white blood cells along with preventing future infections.
  • If there is severe bone marrow damage, then the patient may also be given transfusions of blood platelets or red blood cells.

Treatment for Internal Contamination in Radiation Sickness

There are some treatments which help in lessening the damage received to the internal organs by the radioactive particles and include the following:

  • Radiogardase (Prussian blue) is a type of dye, which attaches to the particles of radioactive elements known as thallium and cesium. These radioactive particles are expelled from the body through feces. This type of treatment speeds up the elimination process of the radioactive particles along with cutting down the amount of radiation absorbed by the cells.
  • Potassium iodide (Iosat Thyroshield) is a nonradioactive type of iodine. The thyroid gland in out body needs iodine to function properly, thus the thyroid becomes a “destination” for iodine in the body. If there is any internal contamination with radioiodine (radioactive iodine), then the thyroid absorbs the radioiodine, as it would absorb other types of iodine. Treatment using the potassium iodide fills up the gaps in the thyroid and prevents the radioiodine from getting absorbed. The radioiodine gets excreted from the body through urine. The effect of potassium iodide is maximum when taken within a day of radiation exposure.
  • Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) is a substance which binds to metals. DTPA attaches to the radioactive particles, such as americium, plutonium and curium. These radioactive particles are eliminated from the body through urine, thus cutting down the amount of radiation which is absorbed.

Supportive Treatment for Radiation Sickness

Patients suffering from radiation sickness are also given additional medications for treating the following:

Treatment for Severe Radiation Sickness

Patients who have absorbed large or lethal doses of radiation, which are about 10 Gy or more, have very little possibility for recovery. Depending on the degree of the illness, death can occur within a couple of days to two weeks. Patients who have received lethal radiation dose are given medications to control nausea, pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Counseling for the patient is also advised.

Prevention for Radiation Sickness

In case of radiation emergency, individuals should follow the recommendations given by the concerned authorities, which depend on the situation. You can be told to either evacuate the area or stay in place.

Staying in Place

The following needs to be done if you are advised to stay wherever you are:

  • Switch off all the fans, heating units and air conditioners which bring in air from outside.
  • Close and lock all the windows and doors.
  • Close the chimney dampers.
  • Bring your pets indoors.
  • Shift to a basement or an inner room.
  • Stay tuned to the local news or the emergency response network.


If evacuation from the place where you are staying is recommended, then move quickly in a calm and orderly manner. Other than this, you need to take some supplies with you such as: portable radio, flashlight, first-aid kit, batteries, important medicines, bottled water, canned foods, can opener, extra clothes, cash and credit cards.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:January 27, 2020

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