What is radiation sickness?

Quick Answer
An acute illness that occurs when an individual is exposed to a sudden, large dose of ionizing radiation (from X-rays, gamma rays, and partical bombardments).
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Causes and Symptoms

Typical symptoms of radiation sickness are nausea, diarrhea, skin burns, internal bleeding, and severe anemia. The production of blood corpuscles in the bone marrow is inhibited, and the ability of the body to fight infection is reduced.

The severity of radiation sickness depends on the dose, which is commonly measured in units called rads (an acronym for "radiation absorbed dose"). For humans, a whole-body dose greater than 600 rads is usually fatal. At 450 rads, there is a 50 percent survival rate. Below 50 rads, no symptoms of radiation sickness are observable, although the risk of cancer is somewhat higher than normal.

Radiation therapy for cancer patients has typically been prescribed in total doses of about 5,000 rads. Such large doses are not fatal for two reasons: first, only a small region of the body (the actual cancer site) is irradiated; and second, the therapy is given in smaller doses of about 200 rads over a period of several weeks, so that the body has time to recover between treatments.

Treatment and Therapy

Once radiation damage occurs, little can be done to repair it directly. Immediate treatment involves washing the body with soap and lukewarm water to remove radioactive material and monitoring of the levels of radiation in the body. This monitoring continues throughout the course of treatment, which centers on whichever parts of the body have been affected and focuses on helping the body’s natural processes of recovery. Vomiting and diarrhea can be controlled with drugs, while bacterial infections and wounds are treated with antibiotics. In extreme cases, a bone marrow transplant can be performed to reestablish the formation of new blood cells. Donor cells are not likely to be rejected because the body’s immune system has been inactivated temporarily by the radiation.


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