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Radiation sickness: prevention and treatment

Contrary to popular media, radiation poisoning is not a death sentence
Contrary to popular media, radiation poisoning is not a death sentence
by Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images

With the Fukushima nuclear plant accident showing signs of becoming one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, I've been receiving a lot of questions about exposure to radiation and what to do about it. While I've already discussed dealing with radioactive fallout and its effect on food and water, I would like to finish this discussion with a look at the worst case scenario: radiation poisoning. Here's what you need to know.

Radiation poisoning aka radiation sickness is typically caused by one large exposure to radiation such as in the detonation of a nuclear weapon. This is good news for us as radiation sickness is not typically associated with exposure to fallout from the meltdown of a nuclear power plant; especially one that is half a world way. I'm not going to bore you with charts related to how many rads per hour it takes to get sick. What you need to know is that radiation is any amount is not good for you and if there is radiation from a bomb or meltdown in the area, you need to be taking precautions to avoid exposure. In preventing radiation poisoning, we look back at our three guidelines for avoiding exposure to radioactive fallout: distance, time and shielding. If you are anywhere near a nuclear blast or immediately downwind from a meltdown, your number one priority should be getting out of the area. The faster and farther you get away from the source of the radiation, the better your chances of survival. In other words, put as much distance and time between you and the source of the radiation. If this is impossible, seek an area with good shielding.

Unlike what you might see in the movies, radiation poisoning is not a death sentence. It is just like any other poisoning in that, if the level of toxin (in this case radiation) is not high enough to kill you directly, you have a good chance of surviving as long you can avoid absorbing more of the toxin. Radiation sickness is unusual in that symptoms typically occur within one to two days of exposure, disappear, then reappear up to two weeks later. Initial symptoms include headache, nausea, sore gums, fatigue, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Unfortunately, lots of illnesses have the same symptoms so don't assume it's radiation poisoning because you've come down with a headache. However, if there has been a large release of radioactive material nearby and a person is showing these symptoms, put as much distance, time and shielding between you and the event then treat the symptoms.

If you believe someone has been irradiated to the point of toxicity, do not be afraid to treat them. Radiation poisoning is not a contagious disease and you can not "catch it" through contact with those who have it. Treat the headache with Aspirin or another type of pain reliever. You will probably not be able to stop their vomiting/diarrhea but give them some type of digestive treatment like Immodium or Pepto Bismal anyway. It can't hurt. More importantly, compulsive vomiting/diarrhea can lead to dehydration so give the patient plenty of liquids. If possible, have the person drink one quart of water mixed with half a teaspoon of baking soda and one teaspoon of salt three times daily. If available, give the person broth, juice or sports drinks like Gatorade throughout the day.

Later symptoms of the condition include bloody diarrhea, the loss of hair and/or teeth and the appearance of red, itchy patches on the skin that may blister. These red patches typically occur near the site of exposure. These symptoms show that the person received a high dose of radiation and should be taken to a medical treatment facility. If this is impossible, make sure that the person has been removed from the source of radiation through a combination of distance and shielding and continue to treat symptoms as they occur.

In recent weeks, supplies of potassium iodide (KI) have disappeared from the shelves of dealers who cater to survivalists and preppers. While KI can help in dealing with exposure to a particular type of radioactive material, potassium iodide is not a cure nor a preventative for radiation poisoning. Large doses of KI can help protect the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine by saturating it with "good" iodine. However, this must be done in advance of any exposure. If taken correctly and in advance of exposure, KI can protect the thyroid for up to a month. Radioactive iodine has a half life of around 8 days so this is usually plenty of time. However, if KI is taken after exposure, any preventative effect will only last about a day.

KI will help protect the thyroid from radioactive iodine, but nothing else. Radiation poisoning attacks all the cells in the body, not just the thyroid. It must also be remembered that every nuclear disaster is different and many release radioactive elements other than iodine. So, to answer a question asked by many readers in the past weeks, go ahead and buy a jar of potassium iodide if you feel compelled to do so but understand its limitations. While KI might help in the event of radiation exposure, in the end, the amount of radiation one is exposed to will ultimately be determined by distance, time and shielding.

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