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Radiation Exposure: Risks and Health Effects

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Topic Overview

What is radiation?

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

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

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How much radiation is dangerous?

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

The chance of getting cancer 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.1
  • A child who was treated with radiation for cancer 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.

How do different sources of radiation compare?

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.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 16, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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