What is Acute Radiation Syndrome?

Mary McMahon

Acute radiation syndrome (ARS), also known as radiation sickness, is a constellation of symptoms associated with short term exposure to high doses of radiation. Some people recover from radiation exposure, while others may die in weeks or months. The chances for recovery depend on the nature of radiation and the dosage. Prevention of acute radiation syndrome involves avoidance of sources of high dose radiation.

Acute radiation syndrome may cause someone to slip into a coma.
Acute radiation syndrome may cause someone to slip into a coma.

To develop acute radiation syndrome, most of someone's body needs to be exposed to a large amount of penetrating radiation in a short period of time. A classic example of a cause of ARS is the detonation of a nuclear bomb. People who are not adequately shielded when the explosion occurs will die instantly or be exposed to levels of radiation which can lead to radiation sickness. Nuclear accidents can also lead to acute radiation syndrome. First responders such as police and fire personnel are often at increased risk because they enter danger areas before they are entirely safe.

A classic example of a cause of acute radiation syndrome is the detonation of a nuclear bomb.
A classic example of a cause of acute radiation syndrome is the detonation of a nuclear bomb.

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There are four phases of this syndrome. The first phase, known as the prodromal phase, involves early symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Then, the patient starts to feel better for hours or days, and may seem relatively healthy in the latency phase. This is followed by the manifest illness or critical phase, in which the patient experiences neurological and gastrointestinal symptoms like seizures, coma, confusion, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, the patient's bone marrow is damaged, leading to infections, internal bleeding, and anemia.

The fourth phase of acute radiation syndrome is death or recovery. Patients can die because the dose of exposure is too high or because their bodies were simply not able to cope with the radiation damage. People who recover can be at risk for health complications later in life. Commonly radiation sickness leads to damage of the skin and hair which can endure for life. Radiation burns on the skin, for example, can scar and will be visible after recovery.

Treatment for patients who experience acute radiation syndrome is focused on supportive care. This can include hydration to help patients retain fluid levels if they are vomiting, cold baths for patients who develop fevers, and pain management for patients who experience severe pain as a result of radiation damage. Because events which can lead to radiation sickness are fairly rare, many doctors have limited firsthand experience treating ARS and they may require assistance from experts who respond to radiation disasters.

Vomiting is common in the first phase of acute radiation syndrome.
Vomiting is common in the first phase of acute radiation syndrome.

Discussion Comments


@rugbygirl - I did see that movie, too. I had also read the novel "Alas, Babylon," which was written in the 1950. The idea was similar, but it was so much more upbeat. In that novel, the town happened to avoid major fallout and everything was hunky-dory once they learned to fish and whatnot.

But then, the 1950s was such a more upbeat era as that went. Like duck and cover drills were really going to help anyone! I once saw a Civil Defense pamphlet from that era that advised that in the event of nuclear attack, you should hide in the bathtub for an hour or two, then put on a raincoat to protect yourself from fallout and go out to help others!


We tend to think of radiation as something that causes cancer, like what happened to the Curies - their exposure to radium causes them to contract leukemia. But it's worth remembering that higher doses cause more immediate problems.

Does anyone remember the movie called "The Day After" or something like that? It was a TV movie that showed in the 1980s and was meant to show the aftereffects of nuclear war. A family in the Plains states, planning their daughter's wedding, were the subjects. Most of them stayed in the shelter, but the daughter went outside to look for her fiance and was exposed to high levels. She got horribly, grotesquely ill during the course of the movie. Couldn't get the illness out of my head for a long time.

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