Radiation sickness occurs after exposure to a large amount of ionizing radiation for a short period of time. Symptoms of radiation illness usually show up in a predictable or planned way, but they are most pronounced after sudden, unexpected exposure to high levels of radiation. In medical terms, radiation illness is known as acute radiation syndrome, radiation poisoning, radiation injury or radiation toxicity. Symptoms develop rapidly and are related to the level of exposure. Exposure to sufficient radiation to cause disease is rare.
Part 1 of 3: Recognizing the Symptoms
Step 1. Watch for the progression of symptoms
Notice the symptoms as they develop, their severity, and when they occurred. It is possible for doctors to determine the level of radiation exposure based on the timing and nature of the symptoms. The severity of the symptoms will vary depending on the radiation exposure received and the parts of the body that have absorbed the emissions.
- The determining factors for the degree of radiation sickness are the type of exposure, the parts of the body exposed, the duration of exposure, the level of radiation exposure and the amount that your body has absorbed.
- The lining of your stomach and digestive tract, and the cells in your bone marrow that produce new red blood cells, are the cells in your body that are most sensitive to radiation.
- The level of exposure governs the presentation of symptoms. The initial symptoms, which include the gastrointestinal tract, can appear within ten minutes.
- If the skin has been directly exposed or contaminated, redness and burning sensation can occur almost immediately.
Step 2. Identify the symptoms
There is no way of predicting the exact course of a radiation exposure incident that leads to radiation sickness because many variables are involved. The presentation of symptoms, however, is predictable. The level of exposure, which can range from mild to very severe, is capable of changing the course of symptoms development over time. The following symptoms are common for radiation sickness.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness and fatigue
- Hair loss
- Bloody vomit and stools
- Infections and poor wound healing
- Low blood pressure
Step 3. Consider the level of exposure
Four categories and their exposure value ranges are assumed to diagnose the severity of radiation illness. The severity is determined by the level of exposure and the onset of symptoms.
- Mild severity is radiation exposure that resulted in an absorption of one to two Gray units (Gy).
- Moderate severity is the result of exposure that causes two to six gray units (Gy) to be absorbed by the body.
- Heavy exposure results in an absorption value between six to nine Gray units (Gy).
- A very strong exposure is the absorption of ten Graz units (Gy) or higher.
- Doctors can determine the absorbed dose by measuring the time between exposure and the first signs of nausea and vomiting.
- Nausea and vomiting occur within ten minutes of an exposure that is classified as very severe. On mild exposure, nausea and vomiting will begin within six hours.
Step 4. Know what the numbers mean
Radiation exposure is measured in a number of ways. In the United States, degree of radiation sickness is referred to as the amount of radiation absorbed by the body.
- Different types of radiation are measured in different units, and to complicate things further, the country you are in may use a different unit.
- In the United States, absorbed radiation is measured in units known as gray with the abbreviation Gy, Rads, or Rem. The general conversions are as follows: 1 Gy equals 100 rads and one wheel equals one Rem.
- The equivalent Rem for different types of radiation is not always expressed as just described here. The information provided here is based on simple conversion factors.
Step 5. Know the method of exposure
Two types of exposure are possible: radiation and contamination. Irradiation involves exposure to radiation waves, emissions or particles, whereas contamination describes direct contact with the radioactive dust or liquid.
- Acute radiation sickness only occurs with radiation. It is possible to have come into direct contact and also to have experienced radiation.
- Radiation contamination leads to the absorption of radioactive material via the skin and transport to the bone marrow, where it can cause health problems such as cancer.
Step 6. Consider possible causes
Radiation sickness is possible but unlikely, and actual occurrences are rare. The radiation exposure caused by an accident in a workplace where radiation is used can cause radiation sickness. Potentially, a natural disaster that affects the integrity of a structure that contains strong radiation - such as a nuclear power plant - is possible.
- Natural disasters, such as earthquakes or cyclones, can potentially damage the integrity of a nuclear facility and cause local releases of potentially dangerous radiation, although this type of structural damage is unlikely.
- An act of war involving the use of nuclear weapons could cause widespread exposure and lead to radiation sickness.
- A terrorist attack using dirty bombs can cause radiation sickness to people in the immediate vicinity.
- Space has risks associated with radiation exposure.
- While possible, it is very unlikely that exposure from medical equipment could lead to the development of radiation sickness.
- Nuclear energy is all around us. Security guards are in place to protect the public from exposure to an accident.
Part 2 of 3: Comparison of the types of radiation
Step 1. Identify the types of radiation
Rays are all around us. Some of them in the form of waves and others as particles. The radiation can go unnoticed and pose no risk, but other forms can be very potent and dangerous when exposed. There are two types of radiation and four primary types of radiation emissions.
- The two forms of radiation are ionizing and non-ionizing.
- The four most common types of radioactive emissions include alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and x-rays.
Step 2. Realize the benefits of ionizing radiation
Ionizing radiation particles can transport a lot of energy. These particles cause changes when they come into contact with other charged particles. It's not always just a bad thing.
- The ionizing radiation is also used for the safe production of X-ray images or computed tomography (CT). The radiation exposure for use as a diagnostic aid, such as X-rays or computed tomography, have no clear limits.
- According to guides published by multidisciplinary study areas known as non-destructive testing or NDT, exposure of 0.05 Rem annually is recommended as the limit for exposure to medical equipment use.
- There may be limits, as determined by your doctor or set by your illness, when you are routinely exposed to radiation as a treatment for your illness, such as cancer.
Step 3. Realize that non-ionizing radiation is safe
Non-ionizing radiation does not cause harm and it is used in everyday devices. Your microwave, a toaster with infrared heating, lawn fertilizer, your smoke alarm at home and your mobile phone are examples of non-ionizing radiation.
- Common foods, such as wheat flour, white potatoes, pork, fruits and vegetables, poultry, and eggs, are exposed to non-ionizing rays as the final step before they are available in your grocery store.
- Important and respected agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association, support the procedures used in irradiating food to control bacteria and parasites because they can be dangerous can if consumed.
- Your smoke alarm protects you from fire by constantly emitting a small amount of non-ionizing radiation. The presence of smoke blocks electricity and tells your smoke detector to set off the alarm.
Step 4. Identify the types of radiation emissions
If you've been exposed to ionizing radiation, the types of emissions that were present will affect the degree of illness you may or may not have. The four common types of emissions include alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and x-rays.
- Alpha particles do not travel very far and have difficulty penetrating anything with substance. Alpha particles release all of their energy in a small area.
- Alpha particles have difficulty penetrating the skin, however, if they penetrate the skin, they can do a lot of damage and damage surrounding tissues and cells.
- Beta particles can travel further than alpha particles, but they still have difficulty penetrating the skin or layers of clothing.
- Beta particles are similar in the sense that they do more harm to the body when they are inside.
- Gamma rays travel at the speed of light and penetrate material and tissue much more easily. Gamma rays are the most dangerous form of radiation.
- X-rays can also travel at the speed of light and penetrate the skin. This is what makes them so useful in diagnostic medicine and some industrial applications.
Part 3 of 3: Treatment of Radiation Sickness
Step 1. Find emergency medical care
Call 112 and get out of the accident area immediately. Don't wait for symptoms to develop. Seek medical treatment as quickly as possible. Mild to moderate forms of radiation sickness can be treated. More severe forms are usually fatal.
- If you think you may have been exposed to radiation, remove all clothing and materials that you were wearing at the time and put them in a plastic bag.
- Wash your body with soap and water as soon as possible. Don't scrub the skin. This can cause irritation or rupture the skin and lead to systemic absorption of residual radiation on the skin surface.
Step 2. Determine the level of exposure
Understanding the type of ionizing radiation at the site of exposure and the amount of radiation your body has absorbed are key factors in diagnosing its severity.
- Treatment goals for radiation illness include avoiding further contamination, treating the most life-threatening problems, reducing symptoms, and managing pain.
- Those who have had mild to moderate exposure and receive treatment will often experience full recovery. A person who survives exposure to radiation will begin replenishing blood cells after four or five weeks.
- Severe and very severe exposure results in death, which can occur anywhere from two days to two weeks after exposure.
- In most cases, death from radiation sickness is attributable to internal bleeding and infection.
Step 3. Receive prescription drugs
Often times, symptoms of radiation sickness can be treated effectively in a hospital. The treatment approach includes maintaining hydration, controlling the progressive development of symptoms, avoiding infection, and allowing the body to recover.
- Antibiotics are prescribed to treat infections that commonly occur in people with radiation sickness.
- Because the bone marrow is very sensitive to radiation, you will be given certain drugs that encourage blood cell growth.
- Treatments may include the use of blood products, colony stimulating factors, bone marrow transplants, and stem cell transplants as indicated. In some cases, blood transfusions or platelet transfusions can help restore the damaged bone marrow.
- People receiving treatment are usually separated from other people to help prevent infection. Visits are sometimes restricted to reduce the risk of pathogen contamination.
- Medicines are available for the treatment of internal organ damage, depending on the specific type of radiation particle or the emissions involved.
Step 4. Expect supportive care
Treating the symptoms is part of the treatment, but for people who have received high doses greater than 10 Gy, the goals are to make the person as comfortable as possible.
- Examples of supportive care include aggressive pain management and medications intended for ongoing symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.
- Pastoral care and psychological support may be available.
Step 5. Monitor your health
People who have been exposed to a radiation incident that resulted in radiation sickness are at a greater than normal risk of developing health problems, including cancer, years later.
- A single, rapid, large dose of radiation can be fatal. Exposure to the same amount over a period of weeks or months can be treated with a good survival rate.
- Animal studies show that strong radiation can lead to birth defects caused by the exposed reproductive cells. Although it is possible that radiation sickness can cause problems with the formation of eggs, sperm, and genetic changes, these effects have not been demonstrated in humans.
Step 6. Track exposure in your workplace
The standards set by OSHA provide guidelines for companies and institutions that use ionizing radiation equipment. Beyond the forms discussed here, there are many types of radiation and also many security applications in our world that we depend on every day.
- Workers exposed to radiation as part of their job will often be required to wear ID cards that contain a record of a cumulative dose.
- Workers are not allowed to remain in the danger zone once they have reached company or government limits unless it is a registered emergency status.
- The standards for exposure to radiation in the workplace in the US are 5 rems per year. In emergency situations, these levels are increased to 25 rems per year, which is still considered a safe level of exposure.
- When your body has recovered from exposure to radiation, it is possible to return to the same work environment. There are no guidelines and little evidence to suggest that future health risks are associated with such repeated exposures.