Behind the scenes of Chernobyl: what is radiation sickness?

Radiation sicknessCC: Free-Photos at Pixabay

As one of the most successful TV shows in recent history, Chernobyl has brought radiation sickness to the forefront of our minds. Fortunately, few of us are at risk of experiencing it in the same way that those who lived in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone did. However, the risk of radiation still looms in some environments.

What is radiation sickness?

Radiation sickness is a condition that arises when we’re exposed to too much penetrating radiation. One of the reasons clinicians are reluctant to order head CTs liberally is because they don’t want to unnecessarily irradiate their patients. As a side note, it would take a lot of head CTs to encounter radiation sickness.

When penetrating radiation enters your cells, it speeds up the movement of atoms and molecules. When this happens, they also produce heat, which your cells don’t like. When ionizing radiation reaches its worst levels, it’ll break the bonds in your cells. As a result, it damages them.

Some parts of your body are more sensitive to penetrating radiation than others. For example, your bone marrow is more sensitive than your brain. Rapidly reproducing cells are also more vulnerable. As such, developing fetuses are at a high risk of damage.

When radiation sickness occurs, it’ll target different tissues at different rates. You’re more likely to experience damage in the areas where exposure happens. Over time, your bone marrow starts to break down, which reduces your ability to fight infections. As viewers have seen in Chernobyl, skin burns are also likely. As your skin is a major barrier to infection, damage to it plus the reduction in white blood cells from bone marrow damage results in a rapid death.

How much radiation does it take to kill a person?

Every day, we’re all exposed to background radiation. In the United States, the average background radiation is 3.1 mSv. To experience mild radiation sickness, you must be exposed to 1 sievert – that’s 300 times the amount of background radiation you experience. If you’re exposed to 1 sievert over a long period, your body has the chance to repair itself. When that exposure happens all at once, radiation sickness is far more likely to occur.

In Chernobyl, those who worked at the plant and encountered the worst exposure faced 6 sieverts of radiation. At a rate of 5 sieverts, half the people exposed will die within one month. This would be despite receiving excellent medical care. Such high levels of radiation cause irreparable damage that supportive medical care cannot substitute.

How do doctors treat radiation sickness?

In the TV series Chernobyl, you likely heard the word iodine mentioned a few times. Taking potassium iodine three hours before exposure provides (near) complete protection. If you take it within a few hours, you’ll receive some protection. After 24 hours, you won’t do anything to offset the radiation you’ve already encountered. However, you can protect yourself against further doses.

Depending on the level of exposure, some patients benefit from antibiotics. This helps to reduce the risk of infection.

Since the investigation into Chernobyl, a lot has been done to make nuclear power safer. It’s rare to encounter such disasters, with the most recent being Fukushima in Japan. Few of us will ever encounter radiation sickness, making this a health threat you don’t need to worry about too much.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.