What is Radiation and how does it affect our body?

What is Radiation?

There are two types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing, and the type determines whether or not there are serious health risks.

1.     Ionizing radiation which are particles from radioactive materials, gamma rays, x-rays, CT scans, high-energy UV rays can damage DNA, which can then lead to cancer

2.     Non-ionizing radiation, like that from cell phones, TV’s and computer screens, low-energy UV rays, visible light, infrared rays, microwaves, radio waves, cannot directly damage DNA and are not associated with an increased risk of cancer.

As health professionals, the type of radiation we are directly concerned about is ionizing radiation, which passes through us, causing our cells to become electrically charged, or ionized, and is a proven carcinogen in humans.  In living tissues, these ions can affect normal biological processes.

How does ionizing radiation affect your body?

It is important to note that small amounts of radiation, including ionizing radiation, are found naturally in our environment.  This is known as background radiation.  It is also found in products we use every day like tobacco products, smoke detectors, building materials.  This background radiation occurs in small enough doses that it does not pose serious health risks.   When we are exposed to large amount of ionizing radiation however, this can result in what is known as acute radiation syndrome.

Acute Radiation Syndrome results when the entire body is exposed to high doses of radiation usually in a short period of time, as in a nuclear plant accident. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and can start within minutes to days after exposure.  The symptoms can last for minutes or days and can come and go.  As the syndrome progresses symptoms include loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and possibly seizures or coma. The severity of these symptoms depends on the dosage of radiation to which exposed

The thyroid gland and bone marrow are extremely sensitive to radiation.  Radioactive iodine can penetrate the thyroid gland and cause cancer. This is why iodine tablets are given after such a radiation disaster to “flood” the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine so the radioactive iodine cannot penetrate the gland.  Leukemia, a cancer that begins in the bone marrow, is the most common radiation-induced cancer and can appear as early as a few years after exposure to radiation. Other cancers that can result from radiation exposure include, but are not limited to: lung, skin, multiple myeloma, breast and stomach cancers.