Radiation is energy that is sent out from a source. Radiation exposure is 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
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 problemsNonionizing radiation—low in frequency and is not known to cause cancer (except for UV rays)
|Ionizing Radiation||Nonionizing Radiation|
|Gamma rays||Visible light|
|UV rays (high-energy)||Microwaves|
|Sub-atomic particles||Radio waves|
|UV rays (low-energy)|
This fact sheet will focus on ionizing radiation.
A person can be exposed to ionizing radiation from: X-rays
used to treat certain types of cancer
Radioactive elements in the soil or public works systems, such as the water supplyOccupational exposures in workplaces, such as uranium minesRadiation from nuclear disasters
External Radiation Therapy for Cancer
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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 who are exposed develop problems. For example, having a
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 effect risks from
, while still small, are higher than the risk from a regular
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.
Over exposure that occurs accidentally, such as from nuclear accidents, can cause radiation sickness. Symptoms may include: NauseaWeaknessHair lossDiarrheaBleedingBurnsLoss of organ functions
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with: Blood testsStool testsUrine tests
The amount of radiation absorbed by your body may be measured. This can be done using a radiation survey meter.
If you have been contaminated, the material will be removed to stop further cell damage. 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.
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. Talk to your doctor about the necessity for medical or dental radiation procedures.
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Frequently asked questions on potassium iodide (KI). Food and Drug Administration website. Available at:
http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm072265.htm#KI%20do. Updated October 27, 2014. Accessed September 6, 2016.
Gross whole-body contamination. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at:
https://www.remm.nlm.gov/ext_contamination.htm#wholebody. Updated August 16, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2016.
How to perform a survey for radiation contamination. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at:
https://www.remm.nlm.gov/howtosurvey.htm. Updated January 12, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2016.
Radiation and potassium iodide (KI). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/japan/ki.asp. Updated October 17, 2014. Accessed September 6, 2016.
Radiation emergency medical management: choose appropriate algorithm—evaluate for contamination and/or exposure. Health and Human Services website. Available at:
https://www.remm.nlm.gov/newptinteract.htm#skip. Updated August 16, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2016.
Radiation exposure and cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/radiationexposureandcancer/index. Accessed September 6, 2016.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Mohei Abouzied, 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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