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What Is the Treatment for Radiation Poisoning?

By Jami Yontz
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radiation poisoning occurs when a person is exposed to radiation at high levels or for a prolonged period of time. Treating radiation poisoning can help with a person’s symptoms and complications, but the damage to human tissue is irreversible, and high levels of exposure are fatal. Treatment for radiation poisoning begins by decontaminating the person by removing any clothing or items that may contain radioactive particles. Other treatment options include administering granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) medication, Prussian blue dye, potassium iodide (KI) pills, or diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DPTA), or by having a bone marrow transplant.

G-CSF medication stimulates the body’s production of a type of white blood cell. Radiation can damage bone marrow, which is responsible for the production of the body’s immune system cells. This medication will help to prevent the person from contracting other life threatening diseases due to a suppressed immune system.

Prussian blue dye is a type of substance that naturally attaches to cesium and thallium radioactive materials. The dye binds to the radioactive particles, preventing the particles from traveling and being absorbed by other parts of the body. Radioactive material, along with the Prussian blue dye, is eventually passed through the intestines.

KI pills are given to a person who has radiation poisoning. The thyroid naturally absorbs iodine, and if a person is exposed to radioactive iodine, his or her body will begin to absorb this substance as it would natural iodine. Potassium iodide, if given within a short amount of time after the person has been exposed to radiation, will prevent the thyroid from absorbing harmful radioactive particles.

DPTA works like Prussian blue dye in that it binds to the radioactive metals in plutonium, americium, and curium. The substance is prevented from being absorbed throughout the body. Eventually, the radioactive particles are flushed from the body in urine or feces.

In some instances, a bone marrow transplant has been effective in improving the person’s outcome after being exposed to high levels of radiation. Bone marrow contains stems cells that create red and white blood cells as well as platelets that infiltrate every part of a person’s body. The person’s infected bone marrow is harvested and then replaced with healthy stem cells. These cells can be taken from a donor or from an umbilical cord blood bank.

Radiation levels above 1 gray (Gy) or 100 roentgens will cause radiation poisoning symptoms in a person. High levels of radiation can cause a person to become nauseous, have diarrhea, to lose his or her hair, or to bleed from the mouth or ears. Usually, a physician will administer medications to boost the immune system and liquids to fight dehydration as soon as possible. A blood transfusion may be necessary to combat the effects of severe anemia that usually affects victims of radiation sickness.

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