The term radiation poisoning usually conjures up images of atomic explosions and massive radioactive fallout. These events are exceptions and while there are numerous occurrences in daily life where people are exposed to radiation, the vast majority of these are not significant. Some of these sources include airplanes, televisions, airport scanners and certain electronic devices. On the other hand, large-scale nuclear crises such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Japanese Fukushima reactor disaster , while rare, are a genuine cause for concern regarding possible radiation exposure and sickness.
Radioactive particles travel easily on the world’s winds and currents. Within a few weeks fallout from the Japanese Fukushima reactor mini-meltdown was found halfway around the world in Massachusetts. Naturally the degree of exposure to radiation lessens as the distance from the source increases. Radiation exposure is measured in units called grays (Gy) on a scale from zero to ten. Symptoms of radiation poisoning usually first appear after the entire body is exposed to a dose of 1 Gy or greater. As a comparison, a typical x-ray results in a Gy dose no greater than 0.1.
At first there may be no symptoms present immediately after exposure. However, this reprieve is short-lived. The first stage of radiation sickness is usually nausea or vomiting. This occurs between a few minutes and a few hours after exposure, depending on the Gy exposure. In mild doses, this may be the only symptom. If the exposure is greater than 2 Gy, the nausea is followed by diarrhea within about 8 hours. The third symptom is a persistent headache followed by a fever. Once again, this occurs between 2 and 24 hours, depending on the severity of the exposure.
In serious cases of radiation poisoning other symptoms appear between 1 and 4 weeks. Patients may report feeling dizzy or disoriented much of the time. This is combined with an inability to remain focused for long periods of time. Shortly thereafter, those exposed to large amounts of radiation report overwhelming fatigue and general body weakness. This indicates the onset of the terminal phase of radiation poisoning.
People in the final stages of radiation sickness rapidly lose hair, vomit blood and have blood in their stools. Any cuts or wounds on the body are not likely to heal. Blood pressure drops steadily. At this point, death is usually imminent.
The likelihood of receiving a lethal dose of radiation is very small. But we are constantly bombarded with small amounts of radiation and being able to recognize the symptoms of a significant exposure is paramount to any treatment. Anyone exposed to abnormal radiation should seek immediate medical attention.