Radiation poisoning is the common name for what the US Center for Disease Control classifies as Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). The condition is caused by excessive exposure to ionized radiation, which can permanently affect the cells in the body. Most people are not exposed to sufficient levels of radiation in daily life to cause ARS, but those who work with radioactive materials or who are subject to a single high dose of radiation have a higher risk level of acquiring radiation poisoning.
Scientists conducting early experiments with radioactive materials in the late 19th century discovered radiation poisoning. Nikolai Tesla, a famous inventor and scientist, described burns he received after exposing his hands to early X-ray technology. Famed female scientist Marie Curie devoted her life to understanding radiation and its uses, and died of cancer believed to be caused by consistent exposure to radiation.
Although the dangers of working with radioactive materials were clear by the 1940s, the world was not exposed to the true destructive possibilities of ARS until the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Some experts suggest that radiation poisoning accounts for nearly 20% of all people killed in the wake of the bombings. Continuing studies in the decades since has showed a jump in cancers and other associated diseases attributed to radiation exposure.
Typical symptoms of radiation poisoning begin with severe nausea and vomiting. If a person is exposed to a single, high dose of radiation, these symptoms can begin within hours. Fever and fatigue typically appear next, followed by possible hair loss, diarrhea or blood in the stool and urine, dizziness, and a drop in blood pressure. In cases of a severe exposure, death occurs in about half of all cases.
People exposed to low doses of radiation over a long period of time, such as biochemical workers, may be more likely to develop other illnesses caused by chronic radiation sickness. Often, those suffering chronic exposure will have a significantly higher risk of cancers and tumors. Radiation sickness damages the cells, tissues, and organs, as well as the immune system, so the whole body is at risk for possible future disease.
Unfortunately, treatments do not yet exist that can cure radiation sickness. Although some drugs are currently in government tests to fight the effects, the current treatment is simply easing the pain of victims and trying to prevent infection or additional problems. It is possible to recover from radiation sickness, but the likelihood of survival depends on exposure level and personal health, and carries no guarantee of safety from developing radiation-associated cancers due to the cellular damage.