Radiation sickness, or radiation poisoning, is damage caused to organ tissue due to heavy exposure to ionizing radiation. In most cases radiation sickness is caused when you are exposed to a large dosage of radiation in a short period of time.
It is unlikely that you will be exposed to large doses of radiation unless you are intentionally poisoned, which is uncommon, or if you work in a factory setting that either produces or utilizes a large quantity of radioactive material. There is a possibility of getting radiation sickness from radon gas, a gas emitted from radioactive sources in the earths crust. You can also be exposed to large doses of radiation from atomic and nuclear weapons that detonate in your geographic region.
If you work in an environment that has radioactive materials, it is best to ask your employer or safety personnel what the best method is to limit exposure. It is probable that they already have a program designed to limit exposure, and detect and treat individuals who have been exposed beyond normal levels. You can buy a kit to test radon levels in and around your home to determine the level of radon gas. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency can assist you here.
There are three primary methods you can use to protect yourself from sources of ionizing radiation:
- First, limit the amount of time you are in the affected area. If you know you are in an area which has radioactive materials leave the area as soon as possible. The effects of radiation exposure are cumulative so the less time you are exposed, the less of a dose of radiation you will suffer.
- Second, increase the distance between yourself and the affected area. Radiation operates by the inverse square law, therefore if you double the distance to the source of the radiation you will reduce your dosage of radiation to one fourth.
- Lastly, you can protect yourself by hiding behind or in a shielded area. Stone and water are very good radiation barriers, but any barrier at all is better than full exposure. Some materials, lead, tungsten and uranium produce xrays when exposed to beta radiation, which will increase your overall exposure, so do not use these materials as a shield unless you know what kind of radiation you are exposed to.
Mild exposure to radiation generally does not have any physical or obvious symptoms. Light to severe exposure symptoms are nausea, vomiting, fatigue, loss of body hair, and general illness. It is not uncommon to also suffer uncontrollable bleeding from the mouth, under the skin and from the kidneys. Acute exposure has a high likelihood of death in hours to a few weeks. Severe diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, and coma are common at the acute level. There may be a period of several days of almost normal human activity in some cases, before acute symptoms are visible.
The treatment for full body exposure to radiation is pain management. Partial bodily exposure to non-critical body parts such as the hands or feet generally does not result in radiation sickness, but those extremities may be lost. A new radiation countermeasures drug, Neumune, is in phase 1 testing, but no results of its effectiveness has been posted to date.