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Radiation Exposure: Risks and Health Effects

Topic Overview

What is radiation?

Radiation is energy that travels as a wave or particle. Some types of radiation, called ionizing radiation, can be harmful. Radioactivity is ionizing radiation that is given off by substances, such as uranium, as they decay.

About half of the ionizing radiation we're exposed to comes from nature. It's in rock, soil, and the atmosphere. The other half comes from man-made sources like medical tests and treatments and nuclear power plants.

How much radiation is dangerous?

There is always a risk of damage to cells or tissue from being exposed to any amount of ionizing radiation. Over time, exposure to radiation may cause cancer and other health problems. But in most cases, the risk of getting cancer from being exposed to small amounts of radiation is small.

The chance of getting cancer varies from person to person. It depends on the source and amount of radiation exposure, the number of exposures over time, and your age at exposure. In general, the younger you are when you are exposed to radiation, the greater the risk of cancer.

For example:

  • Someone who has had many CT scans starting at a young age is more likely to get cancer later in life than someone who hasn’t had any or as many of these tests. CT scans generally use more radiation than other X-ray tests. The risk of an adult getting cancer from a CT scan is less than 1 in 1,000. The risk of a child getting cancer from the same CT scan can be much higher.1
  • A child who was treated with radiation for cancer is more likely to get another cancer later in life.
  • A person who has been exposed to large amounts of radiation from a nuclear accident is more likely to get cancer than someone who has not been exposed.

Exposure to small amounts of radiation doesn’t cause any symptoms. But exposure to large amounts all at once may cause radiation sickness and death.

How do different sources of radiation compare?

Some sources of radiation give off larger amounts than others. For example, when you go through a full-body airport scanner, you're exposed to very small amounts of radiation. But if you live near the site of a nuclear accident, you're exposed to large amounts of radiation.

You may be exposed to more radiation than other people if you:

  • Live at high altitude.
  • Have certain medical tests (such as X-rays or CT scans) or treatments (such as radiation treatment for cancer).
  • Are exposed to radon gas in your home.

To understand more about radiation exposure, you may find it helpful to compare some common sources of radiation to a standard dose from a chest X-ray. A chest X-ray gives off very small amounts of radiation.

For example:

  • You would need to go through a full-body airport scanner about 1,000 times to get the same amount of radiation that you would get from 1 chest X-ray.
  • A 10-hour plane flight is about the same exposure as 1 chest X-ray.
  • One mammogram test is about the same as 5 chest X-rays.
  • Living at high altitude (such as in Denver) for a year is about the same as having 5 chest X-rays.
  • One CT scan is about the same as 200 chest X-rays.

What can you do to protect yourself?

You can’t avoid radiation that occurs naturally. But there are some things you can do to reduce your exposure to man-made sources.

  • If you are concerned about the risk of getting cancer from having a CT scan, talk to your doctor about the amount of radiation this test may give you. Confirm that the test is needed. Ask whether another test, such as an ultrasound or an MRI, can be done instead. In some cases, the benefits of having a CT scan outweigh the small risk of getting cancer.
  • If you have concerns about radiation exposure from a full-body airport scanner, ask if you can get a pat-down instead. (But the amount of radiation exposure from one of these scanners is very low.)
  • If you are exposed to radiation from a nuclear accident:
    • Wait for instructions from public health and emergency officials to tell you what to do. Depending on the kind of accident, authorities may advise you to shelter in place or simply to stay indoors. You don't need to leave your community unless local authorities tell you to.
    • Don’t take potassium iodide (KI) tablets unless local authorities tell you to and your doctor says that it's okay. These tablets help protect your thyroid gland from the harmful effects of radioactive iodine, which can be released as a result of a nuclear accident. They don’t protect against any other radioactive substances. KI tablets can be harmful if you don’t take them properly, are allergic to iodine, or have certain skin or other health problems. Some common side effects include upset stomach, skin rash, swollen salivary glands, and a metallic taste in your mouth. In rare cases, a person may have a severe allergic reaction. The reaction may cause breathing problems, hives, or swelling around the lips, tongue, or face.

References

Citations

  1. National Cancer Institute (2008). Radiation Risks and Pediatric Computed Tomography (CT): A Guide for Health Care Providers. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes/radiation/radiation-risks-pediatric-CT.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Nuclear Society (2011). Estimate your personal annual radiation dose. Available online: http://www.ans.org/pi/resources/dosechart/docs/dosechart.pdf.
  • Catlett C, Baker Rogers JE (2011). Radiation injuries. In JE Tintinalli, ed., Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7th ed., pp. 56–61. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS): A Fact Sheet for the Public. Available online: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/ars.asp.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Airport Security Scanning and Human Health. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/airport_scan.htm.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Frequently Asked Questions About a Radiation Emergency. Available online: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/emergencyfaq.asp.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Potassium Iodide (KI). Available online: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2007). Radiation Risks and Realities. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/docs/402-k-07-006.pdf.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2010). Airport Security Scanning. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/radtown/security-scan.html.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2010). RadTown USA: Basic Information. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/radtown/basic.html.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2011). Radiation Doses in Perspective. Available online: http://epa.gov/radiation/understand/perspective.html.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2011). Radiation: Non-Ionizing and Ionizing. Available online: http://epa.gov/radiation/understand/index.html.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2011). Sources of Radiation Exposure. Available online: http://epa.gov/radiation/sources/index.html.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (2011). Understanding Radiation: Health Effects. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/health_effects.html.
  • Mehta P, Smith-Bindman R (2011). Airport full-body screening: What is the risk? Archives of Internal Medicine. Published online March 28, 2011 (doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.105).
  • National Cancer Institute (2003). What about treatment? In Young People With Cancer: A Handbook for Parents. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/youngpeople/page5.
  • National Cancer Institute (2008). Radiation Risks and Pediatric Computed Tomography (CT): A Guide for Health Care Providers. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes/radiation/radiation-risks-pediatric-CT.
  • Radiological Society of North America and American College of Radiology (2010). Radiation Exposure in X-Ray and CT Examinations. Available online: http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/safety/index.cfm?pg=sfty_xray.
  • Schauer DA (2009). Report No. 160—Ionizing Radiation Exposure of the Population of the United States. Bethesda, MD: National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.
  • World Nuclear Association (2011). Nuclear Radiation and Health Effects. Available online: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf05.html.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Howard Schaff, MD - Diagnostic Radiology
Last Revised May 20, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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