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Radiation Exposure: Risks and Health Effects

Overview

What is radiation?

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

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

What are the risks of being exposed to radiation?

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

The chance of getting cancer from radiation exposure 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.footnote 1
  • A child who was treated with radiation for cancer early in life 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.

What are the kinds of radiation exposure?

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 around you in nature. But there are some things you can do to reduce how much you get from man-made sources.

  • You may be concerned about the risk of getting cancer from a CT scan. If so, talk to your doctor about how much radiation this test may give you. Make sure that you need the test. Ask if 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.
  • You may have concerns about getting radiation from a full-body airport scanner. If so, ask if you can get a pat-down instead. (But the amount of radiation you get 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. They can tell you what to do. Depending on the kind of accident, they may tell 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 can harm you if you don't take them the right way. They help protect your thyroid gland from the harm done by radioactive iodine. This can be released as a result of a nuclear accident. They don't protect you from any other radioactive substances.

References

Citations

  1. National Cancer Institute (2012). 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.

Credits

Current as of: September 20, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
R. Steven Tharratt MD, MPVM, FACP, FCCP - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Medical Toxicology

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