• Radiation Exposure

    (Ionizing Radiation Exposure)


    Radiation is energy that is sent out from a source. Radiation exposure is when a person is exposed to this energy.
    There are different forms of radiation. Some come from nature and some are manmade. There are the ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. There is also the radiation used in microwaves to heat food. Radiation is divided into:
    • Ionizing radiation—a high-frequency radiation that is able to damage cells, has also been linked to cancer and other health problems
    • Nonionizing radiation—low in frequency and is not known to cause cancer (except for UV rays)
    Ionizing Radiation Nonionizing Radiation
    Gamma rays Visible light
    X-rays Infrared rays
    UV rays (high-energy) Microwaves
    Sub-atomic particles Radio waves
    UV rays (low-energy)

    This fact sheet will focus on ionizing radiation.


    A person can be exposed to ionizing radiation from:
    • X-rays
    • Radiation therapy used to treat certain types of cancer
    • Radioactive elements in the soil or public works systems, such as the water supply
    • Occupational exposures in workplaces, such as uranium mines
    • Radiation from nuclear disasters
    External Radiation Therapy for Cancer
    Radiation of Tumor
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

    Risk Factors

    You are at risk for radiation exposure if you are near sources that generate it.
    Ionizing radiation has been linked to health problems, but not all people who are exposed develop problems. For example, having a chest x-ray does expose you to some radiation, but the dose is low and your risk for health problems is low. Other tests, like CT scans, expose you to higher doses. Health effect risks from CT scans , while still small, are higher than the risk from a regular x-ray .
    The greater the exposure, the more likely there will be health effects. For example, doctors treat some cancers with high doses of radiation. This not only kills cancer cells, but also healthy cells. Also, people exposed to large nuclear accidents can be injured by the high amounts of radiation.


    There is also the risk of cancer. Cancer may take years to develop after you have been exposed to radiation. Some cancers linked with ionizing radiation exposure are:


    Over exposure that occurs accidentally, such as from nuclear accidents, can cause radiation sickness. Symptoms may include:
    • Nausea
    • Weakness
    • Hair loss
    • Diarrhea
    • Bleeding
    • Burns
    • Loss of organ functions


    You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
    Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
    • Blood tests
    • Stool tests
    • Urine tests
    The amount of radiation absorbed by your body may be measured. This can be done using a radiation survey meter.


    If you have been contaminated, the material will be removed to stop further cell damage. You may be bathed in lukewarm water and soap. Your radiation levels will also be monitored.
    If you have radiation sickness, you will be monitored and treated closely while your body heals. Treatment depends on what parts of your body are damaged.
    Radioactive iodine can be absorbed by your thyroid gland. This can injure the gland and lead to thyroid cancer. To block your body from absorbing this type of radiation, you may be treated with potassium iodine.


    There are policies to prevent the public from dangerous levels of radiation. Safety measures are taken when it is used for medical treatment or is part of a work environment. Talk to your doctor about the necessity for medical or dental radiation procedures.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov

    Radiation Emergency Medical Managemen https://www.remm.nlm.gov


    BC Centre for Disease Control http://www.bccdc.ca

    Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca


    Brenner DJ. Should we be concerned about the rapid increase in CT usage? Rev Environ Health. 2010;25(1):63-68.

    Colang JE, Killion JB, Vano E. Patient dose from CT: a literature review. Radiol Technol. 2007;79(1):17-26.

    Frequently asked questions on potassium iodide (KI). Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm072265.htm#KI%20do. Updated October 27, 2014. Accessed September 6, 2016.

    Gross whole-body contamination. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/ext%5Fcontamination.htm#wholebody. Updated August 16, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2016.

    How to perform a survey for radiation contamination. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/howtosurvey.htm. Updated January 12, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2016.

    Radiation and potassium iodide (KI). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/japan/ki.asp. Updated October 17, 2014. Accessed September 6, 2016.

    Radiation emergency medical management: choose appropriate algorithm—evaluate for contamination and/or exposure. Health and Human Services website. Available at: https://www.remm.nlm.gov/newptinteract.htm#skip. Updated August 16, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2016.

    Radiation exposure and cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/radiationexposureandcancer/index. Accessed September 6, 2016.

    Revision Information

  • LiveWell personal health survey

    How healthy are you really? Find out – free.Learn more

    It's time to stop guessing. If you want to make some changes but just aren't sure how, the free personal health survey from LiveWell is a great place to start.

  • HeartSHAPE Spotlight

    At risk for a heart attack? Learn more

    Fight heart disease and prevent heart attacks. HeartSHAPE® is a painless, non-invasive test that checks pictures of your heart for early-stage coronary disease.

  • Calories and Energy Needs

    Calorie NeedsLearn more

    How many calories do you need to eat each day to maintain your weight and fuel your physical activity? Enter a few of your stats into this calculator to find out.

  • Ideal Body Weight

    Ideal Body WeightLearn more

    Using body mass index as a reference, this calculator determines your ideal body weight range. All you need to do is enter your height.

  • Body Mass Index

    Body Mass IndexLearn more

    This tool considers your height and weight to assess your weight status.

  • Can we help answer your questions?

    Wellmont Nurse Connection is your resource for valuable health information any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Speak to a Nurse any time, day or night, at (423) 723-6877 or toll-free at 1-877-230-NURSE.