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Radiation sickness

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Radiation sickness occurs from exposure to a large amount of radiation. The exposure may be in a series of doses spread over time (chronic) or in a single large dose (acute). Radiation exposure may be accidental or intentional.

The two main types of radiation are penetrating (ionizing) and nonpenetrating (nonionizing). Penetrating radiation affects you by entering your body and depositing radioactive energy into your tissues, which then can cause cell damage or cell death. Nonpenetrating radiation doesn't pass through your skin. A large dose of penetrating radiation may kill bone marrow cells, while a large dose of nonpenetrating radiation may burn your skin.

Radiation is a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen). Exposure to radiation can increase your risk of cancer. Large doses of radiation can cause other adverse health effects, including cataracts and mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy.

Screening and diagnosis

To measure radiation exposure, doctors and scientists use units called rem and millirem (one thousandth of a rem). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American receives a dose of about 360 millirem of radiation each year. Most of that exposure comes from natural sources, such as radon gas and radiation from outer space, rocks and soil. The remaining exposure comes from human-made radiation sources, including medical X-rays.

The average dose of radiation from a standard X-ray generally is less than 10 millirem. In comparison, the average dose of radiation received by survivors of one of the two atomic bomb explosions in Japan was as high as a few hundred rems.

A single exposure of 5 to 75 rem — much higher than the average annual exposure — produces few observable symptoms. Vomiting, fatigue and loss of appetite can accompany exposures of 75 to 200 rem, with recovery taking a few weeks. Severe changes in blood cells and hemorrhaging occur with exposures of more than 300 rem. In exposures of more than 600 rem, destruction of the body's ability to fight infection occurs, usually resulting in death.

If you've been exposed to large amounts of radiation, you'll be treated based on your physical signs and symptoms and a complete blood count (CBC). The CBC measures the amount of hemoglobin, which determines the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood, the percentage of red blood cells, the number and type of white blood cells and the number of platelets. This blood test can help detect the presence of many conditions, including anemia, infections and leukemia. You'll need frequent monitoring of your blood samples.

In addition to physical examination and laboratory testing, doctors consider three main factors in determining how much radiation a person has been exposed to. These include:

  • Time. The amount of radiation exposure varies with the time spent near the source of radiation. When a person is assessed for radiation exposure, doctors consider the amount of time he or she has likely spent in the area of the radiation source.

  • Distance. The farther you are from a source of radiation, the less your exposure.

  • Shielding. The greater the shielding around a radiation source, the smaller the exposure. Shielding occurs when there's something that absorbs radiation between you and the source. The amount of shielding required to protect against different kinds of radiation depends on the type and the energy of the radiation.

The amount of radiation exposure someone might receive from the explosion of a dirty bomb would depend on the type and amount of the radioactive material used, as well as the factors of time, distance and shielding.

Radiation sickness > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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