Radiation Sickness

1 What is Radiation Sickness?

Radiation sickness refers to the damage resulting from excessive exposure to ionizing radiation in a short period of time.

The effects of radiation, both physical and genetic, depend on the dose and the dose rate of radiation.

Radiation sickness, also known as acute radiation syndrome or radiation poisoning, is rare in occurrence. Most cases of radiation syndrome is reported after major nuclear accidents, as in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Symptoms of this condition may occur immediately or after few weeks of exposure.

Children in the womb are also affected severely by the radiation exposure. 

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2 Symptoms

Signs and symptoms or radiation sickness often depend on the dose and duration of exposure. It also depends on the distance from the source of radiation at the time of exposure.

Other factors like the type of source – external or internal – and total or partial exposure, also influence the effects on the body. Some body parts like gastrointestinal system and bone marrow are more sensitive to radiation when compared to others.

Nausea is usually the first symptom of radiation sickness. Depending on the intensity of the radiation, symptoms appear almost immediately or after a few days of exposure.

Initial period of symptoms may be followed by an asymptomatic phase during which the patient may not have any apparent symptoms of exposure. This phase is usually followed by more serious symptoms.

Symptoms appear rapidly with intensity when the exposure level is more. Some of the common symptoms are:

3 Causes

Exposure to high dose radiation is the cause of radiation sickness.

Exposure to radiation may happen after an industrial accident or from other sources.

Some of the probable sources are nuclear weapons, radioactive device, explosive device with nuclear material, or an industrial facility.

The conditions for radiation sickness are:

  • Dose must be large
  • Dose must be external
  • Radiation must be penetrating
  • Significant portion of the body should be exposed
  • Dose should be delivered within a short period of time

4 Making a Diagnosis

Diagnosis of radiation sickness is based on the history of exposure.

The timing between the exposure and the appearance of first symptom gives an estimate of the severity of exposure. Severity is also determined on the basis of the distance between the source of radiation and the duration of exposure.

Frequent blood tests are recommended to look out for changes in the white blood cells. This helps to assess the damage to bone marrow.

The type of radiation exposure also provides information that would be helpful in deciding the treatment methodology. Suspected skin damage is also assessed. 

5 Treatment

As the first step in treatment for radiation sickness, external radioactive particles, if any, are removed as much as possible.

Clothing and shoes worn at the time of exposure to the radiation should be removed, and this helps in preventing further contamination. Gently cleansing the skin with water and soap removes more contaminants, if still present. Decontamination of the patient reduces the chances of further contamination through ingestion or inhalation.

In the next stage, steps are taken to prevent the effects of radiation on bone marrow. Granulocyte-colony stimulating factor is recommended to improve production of white blood cells from the marrow.

The drugs commonly used are filgrastim, sargramostim, and pegfilgrastim. In case of severe damage to the bone marrow, transfusions of platelets and white blood cells are recommended. These treatment methods aid in preventing further infections.

Damage to internal organs due to radioactive particles is controlled by drugs and methods that are specific to the type of radiation. Potassium iodide is suggested if contamination is due to radioactive iodine. Potassium iodide helps to prevent the absorption of iodine and to clear the contaminants from the body. Prussian blue is used when the source of radiation is cesium and thallium.

This also prevents the absorption of radioactive materials. Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid binds to radioactive materials in the body and helps to eliminate the same from the body. Other medications to treat infections, nausea and vomiting, headache, dehydration and burns are also prescribed.

6 Prevention

Several methods exist for preventing radiation sickness.

Take adequate precautions at the time of radiation emergency.

If at home, avoid radiations by closing the doors and windows.

Try not to use appliances like heaters and AC which will allow air from outside.

If possible, move to the basement or evacuate from the area. 

7 Alternative and Homeopathic Remedies

Some of the natural remedies to offset the radiation sickness are:

  • Nascent iodine – it helps to lower the levels of accumulated radioactive material in the body.
  • Potassium orotate – it prevents retention of radioactive cesium.
  • Calcium and Magnesium – these elements are effective in preventing damages due to strontium.
  • Dimethylsulphoxide – it helps to detoxify the body after radiation exposure.
  • Zeolites – they remove the radioactive material from the body by attaching to them.
  • Activated charcoal – they help to neutralize radiation and remove the toxic material.
  • Papain – papain is used to remove toxic compounds.

8 Lifestyle and Coping

Radiation sickness can have lifelong effects on your lifestyle, so address it immediately.

Depending on the situation, evacuate or stay safe inside when there is a radiation emergency. 

9 Risks and Complications

There are several risks and complications associated with radiation sickness.

Radiation exposure increases the chances of developing cancer.

It may also result in several physical and mental problems.

It may lead to long-term issues like anxiety, fear and grief. 

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