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Health Effects of Radiation Exposure
Radiation affects the body in different ways, but the adverse health consequences of exposure may not be seen for many years.
   -Adverse health effects range from mild effects, such as skin reddening, to serious effect such as cancer and death. These adverse health effects are determined by the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose), the type of radiation, the route of exposure, and the length of time a person is exposed.

   -Acute radiation syndrome (ARS), or radiation sickness, is usually caused when a person receives a high dose of radiation to much of the body in a matter of minutes. Survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs and firefighters responding to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant event in 1986 experienced ARS. The immediate symptoms of ARS are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; later, bone marrow depletion may lead to weight loss, loss of appetite, feeling like you have the flu, infection, and bleeding. The survival rate depends on the radiation dose. For those who do survive, full recovery takes from a few weeks to 2 years.

   -Children exposed to radiation may be more at risk than adults. Radiation exposure to the unborn child is of special concern because the human embryo or fetus is extremely sensitive to radiation.

   -Radiation exposure, like exposure to the sun, is cumulative.

Acute Radiation Syndrome

Radiation sickness, known as acute radiation sickness (ARS), is a serious illness that occurs when the entire body (or most of it) receives a high dose of radiation, usually over a short period of time. Many survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs in the 1940s and many of the firefighters who first responded after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986 became ill with ARS.

People exposed to radiation will get ARS only if:

   -The radiation dose was high (doses from medical procedures such as chest X-rays are too low to cause ARS; however, doses from radiation therapy to treat cancer may be high enough to cause some ARS symptoms),
  -The radiation was penetrating (that is, able to reach internal organs),
  -The person’s entire body, or most of it, received the dose, and
  -The radiation was received in a short time, usually within minutes.
  -The first symptoms of ARS typically are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms will start  within minutes to days after the exposure, will last for minutes up to several days, and may come and go. Then the person usually looks and feels healthy for a short time, after which he or she will become sick again with loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and possibly even seizures and coma.This seriously ill stage may last from a few hours up to several months.

     People with ARS typically also have some skin damage. This damage can start to show within a few hours after exposure and can include swelling, itching, and redness of the skin (like a bad sunburn). There also can be hair loss. As with the other symptoms, the skin may heal for a short time, followed by the return of swelling, itching, and redness days or weeks later. Complete healing of the skin may take from several weeks up to a few years depending on the radiation dose the person’s skin received.

     The chance of survival for people with ARS decreases with increasing radiation dose. Most people who do not recover from ARS will die within several months of exposure. The cause of death in most cases is the destruction of the person’s bone marrow, which results in infections and internal bleeding. For the survivors, the recovery process may last from several weeks up to 2 years.

     If a radiation emergency occurs that exposes people to high doses of radiation in a short period of time, they should immediately seek medical care from their doctor or local hospital.

Possible Health Effects of Radiation Exposure on Unborn Babies

Prenatal Radiation Exposure

     The exposure of an unborn baby to radiation is referred to as prenatal radiation exposure. This can occur when the mother's abdomen is exposed to radiation from outside her body. Also, a pregnant woman who accidentally swallows or breathes in radioactive materials may absorb that substance into her bloodstream. From the mother's blood, radioactive materials may pass through the umbilical cord to the baby or concentrate in areas of the mother's body near the womb (such as the bladder) and expose the unborn baby to radiation.

     The possibility of severe health effects depends on the gestational age of the unborn baby at the time of exposure and the amount of radiation it is exposed to. Unborn babies are less sensitive during some stages of pregnancy than others. However, unborn babies are particularly sensitive to radiation during their early development, between weeks 2 and 15 of pregnancy. The health consequences can be severe, even at radiation doses too low to make the mother sick. Such consequences can include stunted growth, deformities, abnormal brain function, or cancer that may develop sometime later in life. However, since the baby is shielded by the mother's abdomen, it is protected in the womb from radioactive sources outside the mother's body. Consequently, the radiation dose to the unborn baby is lower than the dose to the mother for most radiation exposure events.
     Pregnant women should consult with their physicians if they have any concern about radiation exposure to their unborn baby.

Increased Cancer Risk

   -Radiation exposure before birth can increase a person's risk of getting cancer later in life.
   -Unborn babies are especially sensitive to the cancer-causing effects of radiation. However, the increased risks depend on the amount of radiation to which the baby was exposed and the amount of time that it was exposed. For example, if the radiation dose to the unborn baby was roughly equivalent to 500 chest x-rays at one time, the increase in lifetime cancer risk would be less than 2% (above the normal lifetime cancer risk of 40 to 50%).

Other Risks from Radiation Exposure
Health effects other than cancer from radiation exposure are not likely when the dose to the unborn baby is very low.
   -Most researchers agree that babies who receive a small dose of radiation (equal to 500 chest x-rays or less) at any time during pregnancy do not have an increased risk for birth defects. The only increased risk to these babies is a slightly higher chance of having cancer later in life (less than 2% higher than the normal expected cancer risk of 40 to 50%).

During the first 2 weeks of pregnancy, the radiation-related health effect of greatest concern is the death of the baby.
     The unborn baby is made up of only a few cells during the first 2 weeks of pregnancy. Damage to one cell can cause the death of the embryo before the mother even knows that she is pregnant. Of the babies that survive, however, few will have birth defects related to the exposure, regardless of how much radiation they were exposed to.

Large radiation doses to the unborn baby during the more sensitive stages of development (between weeks 2 and 15 of pregnancy) can cause birth defects, especially to the brain.
     When an unborn baby is exposed to large doses of radiation (above the dose received from 500 chest x-rays) during the more sensitive stages of development (especially between weeks 8 and 15 of pregnancy), the health consequences can be severe, especially to the brain. Babies exposed to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the 8- to15-week stage of pregnancy were found to have a high rate of brain damage that resulted in lower IQ and even severe mental retardation. They also suffered stunted growth (up to 4% shorter than average people) and an increased risk of other birth defects.

Between the 16th week of pregnancy and birth, radiation-induced health effects (besides cancer) are unlikely unless the unborn baby receives an extremely large dose of radiation.
     In the 16- to 25-week stage of pregnancy, health consequences similar to those seen in the 8- to 15-week stage could occur, but only when the doses are extremely large (more than about 5,000 chest x-rays received at one time). At this dose level, the mother could be showing signs of acute radiation syndrome, which is sometimes known as radiation sickness.

After the 26th week of pregnancy, the radiation sensitivity of the unborn baby is similar to that of a newborn.
      At the 26th week of pregnancy, the unborn baby is fully developed though not fully grown. Unborn babies exposed to radiation in the womb during this stage of pregnancy are no more sensitive to the effects of radiation than are newborns. This means that birth defects are not likely to occur, and only a slight increase in the risk of having cancer later in life is expected.

     Again, it is important for women who are concerned about radiation exposure to their unborn babies to consult their physician.

                  All information from this page obtained from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control)



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