What is Radiation Sickness?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 July 2019
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Ionizing radiation is a type of radiation that has immediate adverse effects on the tissue of humans and other animals. This form of radiation is used in some work processes, in medical “radiation treatments” and x-rays, in certain industries, and in weapons like atomic weapons. It can also be naturally present in certain types of space rays. When substantial levels of exposure to ionizing radiation happen, especially in a short time period, this can result in what is called radiation sickness, radiation poisoning or acute radiation syndrome (ARC). Depending on levels of exposure, radiation sickness may be curable, could cause slow decline into death, or might be almost immediately fatal.

The symptoms of radiation sickness are variable and may range in severity depending on exposure level. One of the most common symptoms is that of nausea and vomiting, and this may include vomiting blood. Vomiting may be severe, lasting for many days or it might have periods where it seems to cease and then reoccurs. People can also experience many symptoms that affect the skin. They might have burns from exposure and skin could begin to deteriorate or develop open sores.

Other common radiation sickness symptoms include loss of significant amounts of hair and easy bruising. It’s not uncommon for lesions in the mouth to develop, or bleeding from the mouth or sinuses to occur. People may also have extreme fatigue and all-over weakness, and they could faint periodically.


The main treatment for ARC is usually dependent on exposure levels, which aren’t always easy to determine. Usually, blood testing and analysis of each person’s symptom expression gives some sense of how serious the condition is. Typically when exposure has been very high, the condition may be fatal within a few days. Others die within a month of moderate exposure, and some people do recover with slight exposure.

Most frustrating is that fatal cases really have very little treatment options. Doctors can work to make patients comfortable with different forms of pain medication, but there is no effective cure.

There are also very important instructions for first aid treatment of radiation exposure. People are not to touch those exposed, unless they are wearing protective gear, and especially should not try to administer CPR without special gear. Instead, those assisting someone with exposure should encourage that person to undress, wash the skin with soap and water, and then give the person a clean blanket or towel. Leaving the area where exposure occurred alone is tantamount, to avoid possible continued contamination. In most cases, people who are not trained to respond to this type of emergency should not try, as they seriously risk their own lives by doing so.

Radiation sickness is a frustrating result of use of chemicals or substances that can be extremely dangerous. Although there is no cure for severe exposure, safety protocol regarding use of ionizing radiation has improved because the danger of developing ARC is too great to ignore.



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