The effects of radiation also referred to as radiation sickness, is a life-threatening condition that occurs when an individual is exposed to a prolonged or significant dose of ionizing radiation. This syndrome can lead to death in hours or after several months, depending on the dose and the length of time of the exposure. Radiation sickness could be the result of sudden and severe exposure to ionizing radiation with a set of symptoms or a more chronic exposure which is over a period of time, with the effects being prolonged medical issues like cancer. It is more damaging to be exposed to a very high, single dose over minutes or hours than when the exposure is in several smaller doses given over weeks or months to a smaller area of the body (as seen in cancer therapy).
What are the symptoms of radiation sickness?
The severity of the symptoms depends on some factors, like the amount of absorbed radiation, and this depends on the strength of the radiated energy, the distance between the individual and the radiation source, and the time of exposure. The type of exposure also influences the symptoms, that is, if it was a whole-body exposure or just part of the body. The effects also depend on the sensitivity of the affected body part to radiation. For example, the gastrointestinal system and the bones are highly sensitive to radiation. The most common early signs of radiation sickness are usually nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. They may begin within a few minutes of exposure and may come and go for several days. There might also be skin damage. Some other symptoms that may be seen include:
- Skin damage appears like a bad sunburn
- Blisters or sores
- Dizziness and disorientation
- Hair loss
- Internal bleeding resulting in bloody stools and vomit
- Low blood pressure
- Low white blood cell count resulting in vulnerability to infections
If an individual experiences any of these symptoms after exposure to radiation, they should seek medical help as soon as it is safe to do so.
What causes radiation sickness?
Radiation sickness can result from direct exposure or contamination by radioactive materials. A nuclear or atomic blast, the fallout from the testing of nuclear weapons, and accidents that involve radioactive materials can lead to direct exposure. Contamination can occur from consuming nuclear-contaminated food and water and skin contact with nuclear materials.
How is radiation sickness diagnosed?
The diagnosis of radiation sickness is based on the following information:
- The symptoms and signs experienced
- History of radiation exposure
- Laboratory tests
The beginning and the severity of the symptoms and the timeframe of occurrence can help determine the dose of radiation and also predict the complications that will be experienced. After acute radiation exposure, a complete blood count is usually ordered after 24, 48, and 72 hours in order to estimate the initial dose and also determine the prognosis. When radiation contamination is suspected, a Geiger-Muller counter is used to test the individual’s body in order to detect and measure ionizing radiation. The individual’s ears, mouth, and any wound are wiped and then tested with the counter in order to detect any trace of internal radiation contamination. The urine and feces may also be tested for signs of radioactivity.
How is radiation sickness treated?
The treatment for radiation sickness is based on the severity of the condition. As the usual significant exposure to radiation is a result of nuclear emergencies, the first care given is prioritized based on the severity of symptoms and injuries. Some of the general therapy includes:
- Decontamination of the individual – this includes removal of the clothing that must have been exposed to radiation and thoroughly washing the individual’s entire body. This is also done to protect others from further exposure to radiation.
- Surgery – this is done to people that have life-threatening injuries in order to stabilize them.
- Supportive care – this includes electrolyte and fluid monitoring and management, pain control for burns and any other injuries, and administration of antibiotics to fight any infection.
- Prevention of thyroid cancer – this is usually recommended for children and pregnant women. They are mandated to take potassium iodide to protect their thyroid from radioactive iodine uptake.
- Treatment of damaged bone marrow – this is done with a protein called granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, which promotes the growth of white blood cells, and may counter the effect of radiation sickness in the bone marrow. Blood transfusions of red blood cells or platelets may also be recommended if the damage to the bone marrow is severe.
- Prussian blue administration – this is a type of dye that binds to particles of radioactive elements known as cesium and thallium. The radioactive particles are then excreted in feces.
- Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) – this substance binds to metals. It binds to particles of radioactive elements like plutonium, americium, and curium. The bound particles are then passed out through urine.
- Psychological therapy – this includes the management of any psychological trauma or injury with therapy, medication, or both.
Is there any way of preventing radiation sickness?
There is no way of preventing eventualities that lead to significant radiation exposure and eventual sickness. Still, there are some steps you can take in the event of nuclear emergencies. They include:
- Leaving or not entering an area of a radiation exposure occurrence.
- Removing any contaminated clothing as soon as possible and discarding them in a sealed container. Washing the entire body thoroughly with soap and water.
- Seeking emergency medical help as soon as possible.
What is the prognosis of radiation sickness?
The prognosis of radiation sickness depends on several factors and include:
- How much radiation was absorbed?
- How much of the body was exposed to the radiation.
- How immediate the medical care was administered.
Radiation sickness is often fatal. The time of death is dependent on the amount of absorbed radiation. A person who absorbs huge doses of radiation has minimal chances of recovery. Depending on the severity of the illness, death can occur within days or weeks. Individuals who receive lethal doses of radiation will receive medical care to control pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.