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Health Information Center

Radiation Exposure

  • Amy Scholten, MPH
Publication Type:


Radiation Exposure

(Ionizing Radiation Exposure)


Radiation is energy that is sent out from a source. It can be found in nature. It can also be manmade. Radiation exposure is when a person is exposed. It can affect health, depending on the type and amount.

There are two types:

  • Ionizing
  • Non-ionizing

Ionizing radiation can injure cells. It is linked to cancer and other health problems.


Ionizing radiation can come from:

  • X-rays and CT scans
  • Cancer treatment
  • Radon—a gas in soil or water
  • Work such as mining
  • A nuclear accident or bomb
External Radiation Therapy for Cancer.

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Risk Factors

The risk is higher for those who are near sources of radiation.

Health problems do not happen in everyone. The higher the exposure, the more likely there will be problems.

CT scans give more radiation thanx-rays. However, the dose and risk for health problems is low with both.


High doses of radiation over a short period of time may cause:

  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Bleeding
  • Burns
  • Loss of organ function

Low levels may not cause symptoms. Sometimes cancers grow years after exposure. They may be:


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. Tests may be done on blood, urine, and stool.

A device may be used to check the amount of radiation in the body.


Treatment is based on the dose of exposure, the source, and the symptoms. The goal is to ease symptoms and reduce problems. It may include:

  • Removing contaminated materials, such as clothing and shoes
  • Showering with soap and warm water
  • Taking medicines to:
    • Treat pain, vomiting, and diarrhea
    • Prevent or treat infection
    • Treat contamination inside the body
  • Having fluids and electrolytes—to prevent dehydration
  • IV nutrition—if food cannot be taken by mouth
  • Using ointments for burns and injuries


The risk of exposure may be lowered by:

  • Following safety guidelines at work
  • Having radon tested at home
  • Talking about concerns with doctors and dentists




  • Acute radiation syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-radiation-syndrome. Accessed February 3, 2021.
  • Frequently asked questions on potassium iodide (KI). US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm072265.htm#KI%20do. Accessed February 3, 2021.
  • Gross whole-body contamination. Radiation Emergency Medical Management website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/ext_contamination.htm#wholebody. Accessed February 3, 2021.
  • How to perform a survey for radiation contamination. Radiation Emergency Medical Management website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/howtosurvey.htm. Accessed February 3, 2021.
  • Radiation and potassium iodide (KI). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/japan/ki.asp. Accessed February 3, 2021.
  • Radiation emergency medical management: choose appropriate algorithm—evaluate for contamination and/or exposure. Radiation Emergency Medical Management website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/newptinteract.htm#skip. Accessed February 3, 2021.
  • Rahman N, Khan R, Badshah S. Effect of x-rays and gamma radiations on the bone mechanical properties: literature review. Cell Tissue Bank. 2018;19(4):457-472.
  • Sun and other types of radiation. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure.html. Accessed February 3, 2021.


  • David Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.