Why does radiation sickness cause hair to fall out?

Why does radiation sickness cause hair to fall out?

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As I understand it, radiation poisoning (acute radiation syndrome) is fatal because the radiation kills cells. However, why do victims experience hair loss at such an early stage in the process?

Radiation poisoning causes mutations in DNA that affect normal cell function, often causing them to die. Cells normally have a number of repair mechanisms but if the damage is too great they won't be able to do so. In particular, cells that are dividing quickly will not have time to repair their DNA before division and so die far quicker than other cells. Chemotherapy is built on this concept. By selectively introducing drugs or radiation that target fast-dividing cells, the cancer cells, which are very dividing rapidly and unchecked, are killed off before most normal cells.

However, there are some cells in the body that are very rapidly dividing. Hair cells are one such type, hence hair will often fall out during chemotherapy or radiation sickness. Another big cell type are those in the gut, which are constantly dividing. That's why you often see people in movies who have been exposed to radiation vomiting. The radiation targets those cells first, hence those are the first symptoms.

Effects on organs of the body (somatic effects)

A wide variety of reactions occur in response to irradiation in the different organs and tissues of the body. Some of the reactions occur quickly, while others occur slowly. The killing of cells in affected tissues, for example, may be detectable within minutes after exposure, whereas degenerative changes such as scarring and tissue breakdown may not appear until months or years afterward.

In general, dividing cells are more radiosensitive than nondividing cells (see above Effects on the cell), with the result that radiation injury tends to appear soonest in those organs and tissues in which cells proliferate rapidly. Such tissues include the skin, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, and the bone marrow, where progenitor cells multiply continually in order to replace the mature cells that are constantly being lost through normal aging. The early effects of radiation on these organs result largely from the destruction of the progenitor cells and the consequent interference with the replacement of the mature cells, a process essential for the maintenance of normal tissue structure and function. The damaging effects of radiation on an organ are generally limited to that part of the organ directly exposed. Accordingly, irradiation of only a part of an organ generally causes less impairment in the function of the organ than does irradiation of the whole organ.

Radiation can cause various types of injury to the skin, depending on the dose and conditions of exposure. The earliest outward reaction of the skin is transitory reddening (erythema) of the exposed area, which may appear within hours after a dose of 6 Gy or more. This reaction typically lasts only a few hours and is followed two to four weeks later by one or more waves of deeper and more prolonged reddening in the same area. A larger dose may cause subsequent blistering and ulceration of the skin and loss of hair, followed by abnormal pigmentation months or years later.

Chemo's Effect on Cells

Cancer cells tend to divide very quickly—at a much higher rate than most of the cells in the body. They ignore the signals and mechanisms that tell normal cells to stop dividing.

Some normal cells in our bodies also rapidly divide, like hair follicle cells, the mucous membrane cells lining of the digestive tract (mouth, throat, stomach, intestines), and the blood-producing cells in the bone marrow.

Chemotherapy drugs work by targeting rapidly dividing cells. They damage the genetic material inside cells (RNA and DNA) that guide cell division. Chemotherapy drugs cannot tell the difference between these normal, rapidly dividing cells and cancer cells, so the drug affects these cells as well.

The hair follicles have a good blood supply, which unfortunately allows chemotherapy drugs to reach them efficiently. About 65% of people who receive chemotherapy will experience hair loss. The amount of hair loss can depend on which chemotherapy agent is used, as well as the timing, dose, and route of administration. It can also vary from person to person, and it's hard to predict who will be affected most.  

About 90% of your scalp hair is in the active growth phase (anagen) at any one time.   This hair will be affected by chemotherapy agents.

There are five classes of chemotherapy drugs, each of which affects a different part of the cell growth cycle or acts in a different way. Which agent is chosen depends on the type of cancer.

Alkylating Agents

Alkylating agents damage the cell DNA at all phases of the cell growth cycle. They are used for breast, lung, and ovarian cancer as well as blood cancers.  

Agents more likely to cause hair loss include Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide) and Busulfex (busulphan). The platinum metal salts, such as Paraplatin (carboplatin) and Platinol (cisplatin) are less likely to cause hair loss.  


Antimetabolites impersonate the building blocks for RNA and DNA, keeping the genetic material from making copies of itself, so the cell can't divide.   They are used for breast, ovarian, and colon cancer, as well as leukemia.

Adrucil (fluorouracil) and Gemzar (gemcitabine) are more likely to cause hair loss, while methotrexate is less likely to do so.  

Anti-Tumor Antibiotics

Anti-tumor antibiotics act on the ability of cells to make copies of DNA, inhibiting cell growth and division.   They are used to treat many types of cancer.

Among these, Cosmegen (dactinomycin), Adriamycin (doxorubicin), and Idamycin (idarubicin) are more likely to cause hair loss, while Bleo 15K (bleomycin), and Mutamicin (mitomycin C) are less likely to do so.  

Topoisomerase Inhibitors

Plant alkaloids (topoisomerase inhibitors) target specific enzymes that enable DNA strands to separate and make copies of themselves.   They are used for lung, ovarian, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer, as well as some leukemias.

Among this group, more hair loss is seen with VePesid (etoposide) and Camptosar (irinotecan) and less with Novantrone (mitoxantrone) and Hycamtin (topotecan).  

Mitotic Inhibitors

Other plant alkaloids are mitotic inhibitors. They inhibit enzymes that are needed for cell reproduction. These include the taxanes (made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree) and vinca alkaloids (derived from the periwinkle plant).   They are used for breast, lung, and blood cancers.

These chemotherapy agents are more likely to cause hair loss. They include Taxol (paclitaxel), Taxotere (docetaxel), Ellence (epirubicin), Ixempra (Ixabepilone), Ellence (epirubicin), Vincasar (vincristine), and Alocrest (vinorelbine).  

Is Radiation Contributing to My Hair Loss, Too?

Some people receive both radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and both can contribute to hair loss. Radiation affects hair only on the body area that is treated. This may mean the hair on that area is lost, but not the hair on your scalp (although that may be affected by chemotherapy). At lower doses, radiation hair loss is temporary, but at higher doses it can be permanent.  

Variation in Effects

Some of the newer cancer drugs are more precise in targeting cancer cells and may not result in hair loss. As well, there are varying degrees of hair loss, regardless of chemotherapy drug type and regimen.

Specific side effects of radiation therapy that affect parts of the body

If you’re getting radiation therapy to the brain

People with brain tumors often get stereotactic radiosurgery (radiation given in one large dose) if the cancer is in only one or a few sites in the brain. Side effects depend on where the radiation is aimed. Some side effects might show up quickly, but others might not show up until 1 to 2 years after treatment. Talk with your radiation oncologist about what to watch for and when to call your doctor.

If the cancer is in many areas, sometimes the whole brain is treated with radiation. The side effects of whole brain radiation therapy may not be noticeable until a few weeks after treatment begins.

Radiation to the brain can cause these short-term side effects:

  • Headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Hearing loss
  • Skin and scalp changes
  • Trouble with memory and speech
  • Seizures

Some of these side effects can happen because radiation has caused the brain to swell. Medicines are usually given to prevent brain swelling, but it’s important to let your cancer care team know about headaches or any other symptoms. Treatment can affect each person differently, and you may not have these particular side effects.

Radiation to the brain can also have side effects that show up later – usually from 6 months to many years after treatment ends. These delayed effects can include serious problems such as memory loss, stroke-like symptoms, and poor brain function. You may also have an increased risk of having another tumor in the area, although this is not common.

Talk with your cancer care team about what to expect from your specific treatment plan.

If you’re getting radiation therapy to the head or neck

People who get radiation to the head and neck might have side effects such as:

  • Soreness (or even open sores) in the mouth or throat
  • Dry mouth
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Changes in taste
  • Nausea
  • Earaches
  • Tooth decay
  • Swelling in the gums, throat, or neck
  • Hair loss
  • Changes in skin texture
  • Jaw stiffness

How to care for your mouth during treatment

If you get radiation therapy to the head or neck, you need to take good care of your teeth, gums, mouth, and throat. Here are some tips that may help you manage mouth problems:

  • Avoid spicy and rough foods, such as raw vegetables, dry crackers, and nuts.
  • Don’t eat or drink very hot or very cold foods or beverages.
  • Don’t smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol – these can make mouth sores worse.
  • Stay away from sugary snacks.
  • Ask your cancer care team to recommend a good mouthwash. The alcohol in some mouthwashes can dry and irritate mouth tissues.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm salt and soda water every 1 to 2 hours as needed. (Use 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 quart of water.)
  • Sip cool drinks often throughout the day.
  • Eat sugar-free candy or chew gum to help keep your mouth moist.
  • Moisten food with gravies and sauces to make it easier to eat.
  • Ask your cancer care team about medicines to help treat mouth sores and control pain while eating.

If these measures are not enough, ask your cancer care team for advice. Mouth dryness may be a problem even after treatment is over. If so, talk to your team about what you can do.

How to care for your teeth during treatment

Radiation treatment to your head and neck can increase your chances of getting cavities. This is especially true if you have dry mouth as a result of treatment.

Before starting radiation, talk to your cancer care team about whether you should get a complete check-up with your dentist. Ask your dentist to talk with your radiation doctor before you start treatment. If you have one or more problem teeth, your dentist may suggest removing them before you start treatment. Radiation (and dry mouth) might damage them to the point where they’ll need to be removed anyway, and this can be harder to do after treatment starts.

If you wear dentures, they may no longer fit well because of swollen gums. If your dentures cause sores, you may need to stop wearing them until your radiation therapy is done to keep sores from getting infected.

Your dentist may want to see you during your radiation therapy to check your teeth, talk to you about caring for your mouth and teeth, and help you deal with any problems. Most likely, you will be told to:

  • Clean your teeth and gums with a very soft brush after meals and at least one other time each day.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste that contains no abrasives.
  • Rinse your mouth well with cool water or a baking soda solution after you brush. (Use 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 quart of water.)
  • If you normally floss, ask your dentist or cancer care team if this is OK during treatment. Tell your cancer care team if this causes bleeding or other problems.

If you’re getting radiation therapy to the breast

If you have radiation to the breast, it can affect your heart or lungs as well causing other side effects.

Short-term side effects

Radiation to the breast can cause:

  • Skin irritation, dryness, and color changes
  • Breast soreness
  • Breast swelling from fluid build-up (lymphedema)

To avoid irritating the skin around the breast, women should try to go without wearing a bra whenever they can. If this isn’t possible, wear a soft cotton bra without underwires.

If your shoulders feel stiff, ask your cancer care team about exercises to keep your shoulder moving freely.

Breast soreness, color changes, and fluid build-up (lymphedema) will most likely go away a month or 2 after you finish radiation therapy. If fluid build-up continues to be a problem, ask your cancer care team what steps you can take. See Lymphedema for more information.

Long-term changes to the breast

Radiation therapy may cause long-term changes in the breast. Your skin may be slightly darker, and pores may be larger and more noticeable. The skin may be more or less sensitive and feel thicker and firmer than it was before treatment. Sometimes the size of your breast changes – it may become larger because of fluid build-up or smaller because of scar tissue. These side effects may last long after treatment.

After about a year, you shouldn’t have any new changes. If you do see changes in breast size, shape, appearance, or texture after this time, tell your cancer care team about them right away.

Less common side effects in nearby areas

Although it’s rare, radiation to the breast can affect organs in the chest, including the heart and lungs. This is not as common today as it was in the past, because modern radiation therapy equipment allows doctors to better focus the radiation beams on the area with cancer, with less affect to other areas.

Rib fractures: In rare cases, radiation therapy may weaken the ribs, which could lead to a fracture. Be sure you understand what to look for and tell your cancer care team if you notice any of these side effects.

Heart complications: Radiation to the breast can also affect the heart. It can cause hardening of the arteries (which can make you more likely to have a heart attack later on), heart valve damage, or irregular heartbeats.

Lung damage (radiation pneumonitis): Getting radiation to the breast can sometimes cause an inflammation of the lungs, which is called radiation pneumonitis. See “If you’re getting radiation to the chest” below for more details.

Damage to the nerves in the shoulder and arm: Radiation to the breast can sometimes damage some of the nerves to the arm. This is called brachial plexopathy and can lead to numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness in the shoulder, arm, and hand.

Side effects of brachytherapy

If your treatment includes brachytherapy (internal radiation implants), you might notice breast tenderness, tightness, redness, and bruising. You may also have some of the same side effects that happen with external radiation treatment. Let your cancer care team know about any problems you notice.

If you’re getting radiation therapy to the chest

Radiation treatment to the chest may cause side effects such as:

  • Sore throat
  • Swallowing problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Radiation can also cause other problems in the heart or lungs.

Heart complications

Getting radiation to the middle portion of the chest can raise your risk of heart disease. This risk increases with higher radiation doses and larger treatment areas in this part of your body. Radiation can also cause hardening of the arteries (which can make you more likely to have a heart attack later on), heart valve damage, or irregular heartbeats.

Radiation pneumonitis

Radiation pneumonitis is inflammation of the lungs that can be caused by radiation treatment to the chest (or less often, the breast). It may occur about 3 to 6 months after getting radiation therapy. It’s more likely if you have other lung diseases, like emphysema (which involves gradual damage of lung tissue). Common symptoms of radiation pneumonitis include:

  • Shortness of breath that usually gets worse with exercise
  • Chest pain, which is often worse when taking in a deep breath
  • Cough
  • Pink-tinged sputum
  • Low-grade fever
  • Weakness

Sometimes there are no symptoms, and radiation pneumonitis is found on a chest x-ray.

Symptoms often go away on their own, but if treatment is needed, it is based on trying to decrease the inflammation. Steroids, like prednisone, are usually used. With treatment, most people recover without any lasting effects. But if it persists, it can lead to pulmonary fibrosis (stiffening or scarring of the lungs). When this happens, the lungs can no longer fully inflate and take in air.

Be sure you understand what to look for, and tell your cancer care team if you notice any of these side effects.

If you’re getting radiation therapy to the abdomen (belly)

If you are getting radiation to your stomach or some part of the abdomen (belly), you may have side effects such as:

Eating or avoiding certain foods can help with some of these problems, so diet planning is an important part of radiation treatment of the stomach or abdomen. Ask your cancer care team about what you can expect, and what medicines you should take to help relieve these problems. Check with your cancer care team about any home remedies or over-the-counter drugs you’re thinking about using.

These problems should get better when treatment is over.

Managing nausea

Some people feel queasy for a few hours right after radiation therapy. If you have this problem, try not eating for a couple of hours before and after your treatment. You may handle the treatment better on an empty stomach. If the problem doesn’t go away, ask your cancer care team about medicines to help prevent and treat nausea. Be sure to take the medicine exactly as you are told to do.

If you notice nausea before your treatment, try eating a bland snack, like toast or crackers, and try to relax as much as possible. See Nausea and Vomiting to get tips to help an upset stomach and learn more about how to manage these side effects.

Managing diarrhea

Many people have diarrhea at some point after starting radiation therapy to the abdomen. Your cancer care team may prescribe medicines or give you special instructions to help with the problem. Diet changes may also be recommended, such as:

  • Try a clear liquid diet (water, weak tea, apple juice, peach nectar, clear broth, popsicles, and plain gelatin) as soon as diarrhea starts or when you feel like it’s going to start.
  • Don’t eat foods that are high in fiber or can cause gas or cramps, such as raw fruits and vegetables, beans, cabbage, whole-grain breads and cereals, sweets, and spicy foods.
  • Eat frequent, small meals.
  • Do not drink milk or eat milk products if they irritate your bowels.
  • When the diarrhea starts to improve, try eating small amounts of low-fiber foods, such as rice, bananas, applesauce, yogurt, mashed potatoes, low-fat cottage cheese, and dry toast.
  • Be sure you take in enough potassium (it can be found in bananas, potatoes, beans, peaches, and many other foods). This is an important mineral you may lose through diarrhea.

If you’re having radiation therapy to the pelvis

Radiation therapy to the pelvis (for example, as treatment for bladder, ovarian, or prostate cancer) can cause side effects such as:

You might also have some of the same problems people get from radiation to the abdomen, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.

Bladder problems

Radiation to the pelvis can cause problems with urination, including:

  • Pain or burning sensations
  • Trouble passing urine
  • Blood in the urine
  • An urge to urinate often

Most of these problems get better over time, but radiation therapy can cause longer-term side effects as well:

  • Radiation cystitis. If the radiation damages the lining of the bladder, radiation cystitis can be a long-term problem that causes blood in the urine or pain when passing urine.
  • Urinary incontinence. Radiation treatments for certain cancers, such as prostate and bladder cancer, may make you unable to control your urine or have leakage or dribbling. There are different types and degrees of incontinence, but it can be treated. Even if incontinence can’t be corrected completely, it can still be helped. See Bladder and Bowel Incontinence to learn more. This side effect is most often a problem for men being treated for prostate cancer, but some of the information might also be helpful for women dealing with treatment-related incontinence.
  • Fistulas. In rare cases, radiation can cause an opening called a fistula to form between organs in the pelvis, such as between the vagina and the bladder, or between the bladder and the rectum. These can be fixed with surgery.

How fertility might be affected

For women: Talk to your cancer care team about how radiation might affect your fertility (ability to have a baby). It’s best to do this before starting treatment so you are aware of possible risks to your fertility.

Depending on the radiation dose, women getting radiation therapy in the pelvic area sometimes stop having menstrual periods and have other symptoms of menopause. Report these symptoms to your cancer care and ask them how to relieve these side effects.Sometimes menstrual periods will return when radiation therapy is over, but sometimes they do not.

For men: Radiation therapy to an area that includes the testicles can reduce both the number of sperm and their ability to function. If you want to father a child in the future and are concerned about reduced fertility, talk to your cancer care team before starting treatment. One option may be to bank your sperm ahead of time.

How sex might be affected

With some types of radiation therapy involving the pelvis and/or sex organs, men and women may notice changes in their ability to enjoy sex or a decrease in their level of desire.

For women: During radiation treatment to the pelvis, some women are told not to have sex. Some women may find sex painful. Treatment can also cause vaginal itching, burning, and dryness. You most likely will be able to have sex within a few weeks after treatment ends, but check with your doctor first. Some types of treatment can have long-term effects, such as scar tissue that could affect the ability of the vagina to stretch during sex. Again, your cancer care team can offer ways to help if this happens to you. You can also get more information in Sex and Women With Cancer.

For men: Radiation may affect the nerves that allow a man to have erections. If erection problems do occur, they are usually gradual, over the course of many months or years. Talk with your doctor about treatment options if this is a concern for you. You can get more information in Sex and Men With Cancer.

If you get internal radiation therapy with seed implants, check with your cancer care team about safety precautions during sex

Cutaneous Radiation Syndrome (CRS)

The concept of cutaneous radiation syndrome (CRS) was introduced in recent years to describe the complex pathological syndrome that results from acute radiation exposure to the skin.

ARS usually will be accompanied by some skin damage. It is also possible to receive a damaging dose to the skin without symptoms of ARS, especially with acute exposures to beta radiation or X-rays. Sometimes this occurs when radioactive materials contaminate a patient&rsquos skin or clothes.

When the basal cell layer of the skin is damaged by radiation, inflammation, erythema, and dry or moist desquamation can occur. Also, hair follicles may be damaged, causing epilation. Within a few hours after irradiation, a transient and inconsistent erythema (associated with itching) can occur. Then, a latent phase may occur and last from a few days up to several weeks, when intense reddening, blistering, and ulceration of the irradiated site are visible.

In most cases, healing occurs by regenerative means however, very large skin doses can cause permanent hair loss, damaged sebaceous and sweat glands, atrophy, fibrosis, decreased or increased skin pigmentation, and ulceration or necrosis of the exposed tissue.

What to know about radiation sickness

Radiation is used in medicine, to generate electricity, to make food last longer, to sterilize equipment, for carbon dating of archeological finds, and many other reasons.

Ionizing radiation happens when the atomic nucleus of an unstable atom decays and starts releasing ionizing particles.

When these particles come into contact with organic material, such as human tissue, they will damage them if levels are high enough, in a short period of time. This can lead to burns, problems with the blood, gastrointestinal system, cardiovascular and central nervous system, cancer, and sometimes death.

Radiation is normally managed safely, but its use also entails a risk.

If an accident happens, for example, the earthquake in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, or the explosion at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, radiation can become dangerous.

Here are some key points about radiation sickness. More detail is in the main article.

  • Radiation is all around us and it is used safely in many applications.
  • Nuclear accidents, the work environment, and some medical treatment can all be sources of radiation poisoning.
  • Depending on the dose, the effects of radiation can be mild or life-threatening.
  • There is no cure, but barriers can prevent exposure and some medications may remove some radiation from the body.
  • Anyone who believes they have been exposed to radiation should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Radiation poisoning happens when a radioactive substance gives off particles that get into a person’s body and cause harm. Different radioactive substances have different characteristics. They can harm and help people in different ways, and some are more dangerous than others.

Normally, radiation occurs in a safe environment. Whether or not it becomes dangerous depends on:

  • how it is used
  • how strong it is
  • how often a person is exposed
  • what type of exposure occurs
  • how long exposure lasts

A dose of radiation from a single x-ray is not normally harmful. Nevertheless, the parts of the body that are not being x-rayed will be shielded with a lead apron to prevent unnecessary exposure.

The technician, meanwhile, will leave the room when taking the image. While one small dose is not dangerous, repeated small doses could be.

A sudden, short, low dose of radiation is unlikely to cause a problem, but extended, intense, or repeated doses can be. When radiation damages cells, it is irreversible. The more often a person is exposed, the greater their risk of health problems.

How much radiation is dangerous?

Radiation dosage can measured in various ways. Some of the units used are Grays, Sieverts, rems, and rads. They are used in a similar way, but 1 rad is equivalent to 0.01 Gray.

  • Below 30 rads: Mild symptoms will occur in the blood
  • From 30 to 200 rads: The person may become ill.
  • From 200 to 1,000 rads: The person may become seriously ill.
  • Over 1,000 rads: This will be fatal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), radiation sickness, or acute radiation syndrome (ARS) is diagnosed when:

  • A person receives over 70 rads from a source outside their body
  • The dose affects the whole body, or most of it, and is able to penetrate to the internal organs
  • The dose is received in a short time, usually within minutes

A person who experiences an atomic explosion will receive two doses of radiation, one during the explosion, and another from fallout, when radioactive particles float down after the explosion.

Radiation sickness can be acute, happening soon after exposure, or chronic, where symptoms appear over time or after some time, possibly years later.

The signs and symptoms of acute radiation poisoning are:

  • vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • malaise, or feeling unwell
  • rapid heartbeat

Symptoms depend on the dose, and whether it is a single dose or repeated.

A dose of as low as 30 rads can lead to:

A dose of 300 rads dose may result in:

  • temporary hair loss
  • damage to nerve cells
  • damage to the cells that line the digestive tract

Stages of radiation sickness

Symptoms of severe radiation poisoning will normally go through four stages.

Prodomal stage: Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, lasting from a few minutes to several days

Latent stage: Symptoms seem to disappear, and the person appears to recover

Overt stage: Depending on the type of exposure, this can involve problems with the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hematopoietic, and central nervous system (CNS)

Recovery or death: There may be a slow recovery, or the poisoning will be fatal.

Hematopoietic stem cells, or bone marrow cells, are the cells that all other blood cells derive from.

Different doses, different effects

The risk of illness depends on the dose. Very low doses of radiation are all around us all the time, and they do not have any effect. It also depends on the area of the body that is exposed.

If the whole body is exposed to, say, 1,000 rads within a short time, this could be fatal. However, far higher doses can be applied to a small area of the body with less risk.

After a mild dose, the person may experience symptoms for just a few hours or days. However, a repeated or even a single, relatively low dose that produces few or no visible symptoms around the time of exposure may cause problems later on.

A person who is exposed to 3,000 rads will experience nausea and vomiting, and they may experience confusion and a loss of consciousness within a few hours. Tremors and convulsions will occur 5 to 6 hours after exposure. Within 3 days, there will be coma and death.

People who experience repeated doses, or who appear to recover, may have long-term effects.

  • a loss of white blood cells, making it harder for the body to fight infection
  • reduction in platelets, increasing the risk of internal or external bleeding
  • fertility problems, including loss of menstruation and reduced libido
  • changes in kidney function, which can lead to anemia, high blood pressure, and other problems within a few months

There may also be skin redness, cataracts, and heart problems.

Localized exposure may lead to changes in the skin, loss of hair, and possibly skin cancer.

Exposure to certain parts of the body is more dangerous than others, for example, the intestines.

The effects of radiation are cumulative. Damage to cells is irreversible.

Exposure to radiation can result from workplace exposure or an industrial accident, radiation therapy, or even deliberate poisoning, as in the case of the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered in London by polonium 210 placed in his tea. However, this is extremely rare.

Most people are exposed to an average of around 0.62 rads, or 620 Gray each year.

Half of this comes from radon in the air, from the Earth, and from cosmic rays. The other half comes from medical, commercial, and industrial sources. Spread over a year, this is not significant in terms of health.

Levels of radiation from an x-ray are not high, but they occur at one moment.

  • A chest x-ray gives the equivalent of 10 days’ exposure to radiation
  • Mammogram gives the equivalent of 7 weeks’ normal exposure
  • PET or CT used as part of nuclear medicine exposes a person to the equivalent of 8 years of radiation
  • A CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis gives the equivalent of 3 years’ normal exposure

Nuclear medicine is used to target the thyroid in people with a thyroid disorder. Other types of medical treatment include radiation therapy for cancer.

Living at a higher altitude, for example, in the plateau of New Mexico and Colorado, increase exposure, as does traveling in an airplane. Radon gas in homes also contributes.

Food, too, contains small amounts of radiation. The food and water we drink is responsible for exposure to around 0.03 rads in a year.

The many activities that can expose people to sources of radiation include:

  • watching television
  • flying in an airplane
  • passing through a security scanner
  • using a microwave or cell phone

Smokers have a higher exposure than non-smokers, as tobacco contains a substance that can decay to become polonium 210.

Astronauts have the highest exposure of anyone. They may be exposed to 25 rads in one Space Shuttle mission.

10 Worst Cases of Radiation Poisoning

Did Yassar Arafat die of exposure? Marie Curie and the victims at Hiroshima did.

Nov. 7, 2013— -- intro: This week, former Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat's death was in the news in a case of suspected radiation poisoning. Swiss scientists announced they had found 18 times the normal levels of polonium in Yasser Arafat's rib, pelvis and in soil stained with his decaying organs, concluding that he was poisoned.

Radiation was not discovered until the late 19th century and its dangers were not immediately known. In 1896, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla intentionally subjected his fingers to X-rays and published findings that burns developed.

In 1927, American geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller published research showing genetic effects of radiation, and in 1946 he was awarded the Nobel prize.

Radiation poisoning is rare, but deadly. Polonium-210 (P-210) is a high-energy alpha emitter with a radioactive half-life of 138 days. It is only a hazard if it is ingested, because of the low range of alpha particles in biological tissues. As a result, external contamination does not cause radiation sickness, according to a 2007 report in the Journal of Radiologic Protection. But taken internally, the poison can be fatal within one month.

Polonium's effect, known as "acute radiation syndrome," first causes nausea, vomiting, anorexia and diarrhea. After a latent phase, victims experience hair loss and bone marrow failure and, if they do not recover, die within weeks to months.

History reveals other frightening cases of radiation poisoning caused by ignorance, industrial disasters and even criminal intent.

quicklist: 1title: Physicist Marie Curie

text: Polish-born and French-naturalized Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes for discovering polonium and radium. At the turn of the 20th century, doctors and industries marketed products like radium enemas and water tonics.

Marie Curie spoke out against treatments, warning that the effects of radiation on the human body were not well understood. In 1934 she died of aplastic anemia caused by radiation poisoning, according to her obituary in The New York Times.

She often carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer. She reportedly liked the blue-green light that the radiation gave off in the dark.

quicklist: 2title: Midori Naka at Hiroshima

text: An estimated 200,000 people died in nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The first person to be extensively studied for what was then called "atomic bomb disease" was the Japanese actress Midori Naka, who was present in Hiroshima in 1945.

quicklist: 3title: Eben Byers

text: Eben Byers, a 51-year-old Pennsylvania steel manufacturer and golf champion, brought attention to the dangers of radiation when he died in 1932 after consuming large amounts of the so-called cure, "radium water," according to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

His physiotherapist recommended the product Radithor for arm pain and fatigue.

Each bottle contained one microgram of radium and one microgram of esothorium mixed with triple distilled water to drink after every meal.

But Byers lost weight, had headaches and began to suffer bone necrosis in his jaw, losing several teeth. He dropped weight and suffered severe headaches.

The company that made Radithor was investigated for false and misleading advertising, but Byers' doctor maintained he had died of gout.

quicklist: 4title: Cecil Kelley

text: An industrial accident at the Los Alamos, N.M., plutonium-processing plant took the life of experienced chemical operator Cecil Kelley in 1958.

He had an excruciating death after being exposed to a lethal dose of neutrons and gamma rays from a mixing tank. When he switched on the stirrer, the liquid formed a vortex and the plutonium layer was released in a pulse that lasted only 200 microseconds.

Kelley fell to the floor and screamed, "I'm burning up," according to reports from the American Federation of Scientists.

At first, he was mentally incapacitated, but on arrival at the local medical center he came to and began vomitting and hyperventilating. His skin turned reddish purple, indicating he had little oxygen in his blood.

He improved briefly, but then developed severe abdominal pains, sweat profusely, developed an irregular pulse and, 35 hours after the accident, Kelley died.

quicklist: 5title: Hiroshi Couchi

text: Japan's worst nuclear radiation accident took place in 1999 at a uranium reprocessing facility in Tokaimura. Three workers were exposed to radiation after a uranyl nitrate solution exceeded the critical mass. Three workers were exposed to high doses of radiation, according to the 2008 book "Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness."

One, Hiroshi Ouchi, was taken to the University of Tokyo Hospital Emergency Room and died two and a half months later. At first, he could talk, but his condition gradually got worse as the radioactivity broke down the chromosomes in his cells.

quicklist: 6title: Alexander Litvinenko

text:Former K.G.B. agent Alexander Litvinenko was living in political asylum in Britain in 2006 when he unexplainably became ill and died in the hospital three weeks later. An autopsy showed that his tea had been spiked with a lethal dose of polonium-210. Just before his death, he accused the Russian government of masterminding the poisoning.

According to The New York Times, his death created "one of the most stirring dramas of espionage since the cold war." Russia's relations with Britain suffered and diplomats on each side were expelled.

British authorities blamed the murder on Andrei K. Lugovoi, a former K.G.B. bodyguard who is now a member of the Russian Parliament. But the Russians refused to extradite him.

Lugovoi has accused the British secret intelligence agency, MI6, and a self-exiled Russian tycoon, Boris A. Berezovsky, of organizing the killing.

quicklist: 7title: Harry K. Daghlian, Jr

text: A 1945 accident in Los Alamos, N.M., took the life of Armenian-American physicist Harry K. Daghlian, Jr., who was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. He was attempting to build a neutron reflector by manually stacking a series of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium core. Moving the final block into position, neutron counters warned that it would render the system supercritical. He accidentally dropped the brick causing setting off a nuclear reaction and in the process sustained a lethal dose of neutron radiation. He died 25 days later.

The top-secret Manhattan Project took the lives of several scientists, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

In 1944, a group of engineers were working on an experimental facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard when, without warning, it exploded, send a cloud of radioactive uranium hexafluoride over the facility.

Killed were engineer Peter Newport Bragg Jr., who was unclogging a tube as part of the mission to perfect the thermal diffusion process for the enrichment of uranium. His co-worker, Douglas Meigs, was also killed. Their work was crucial to the development of the first atomic bomb.

quicklist: 8title: Louis P. Slotin

text: In 1946, Canadian scientist Louis P. Slotin died in another Manhattan Project experiment in Los Alamos, N.M. He was exposed to deadly gamma and neutron radiation that flashed in a blue blaze. Slotin was exposed to almost 1,000 rads of radiation, far more than his six other colleagues who survived.

Little more than a week later, he died in the hospital after experiencing severe diarrhea and diminished urine, swollen hands, redness on his body, massive blisters on hands and forearms, paralysis of intestinal activity, gangrene and a "total disintegration of bodily functions."

quicklist: 9title: Chernobyl Disaster

text: In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union exploded causing tens of thousands of deaths, a number that has never been fully determined.

The official death toll was 31 from acute radiation syndrome, but associated cancers, heart disease and birth defects have been associated with the accident.

The operating crew was planning to test whether the turbines could produce sufficient energy to keep the coolant pumps running in the event of a loss of power until the emergency diesel generator was activated.

Safety systems were deliberately shut off and the reactor had to be powered down. But when the level fell to less than 1 percent and it needed to be increased, there was an unexpected power surge, according to Green Peace The emergency shutdown failed, causing a violent explosion.

The accident released more radiation than the bombing of Hiroshima.

quicklist: 10title: K-19 Submarine

text: The Soviet submarine, the first of two to carry nuclear ballistic missiles, saw its reactor "go haywire" in 1961. It developed a leak in its reactor coolant system causing temperatures to rise dangerously high.

Captain Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev sent seven crew members to their deaths in a heroic struggle to save the boat.

The reactor did not explode but these men died in agony of radiation poisoning, "begging their shipmates to kill them," according to a 1994 report in the Los Angeles Times.

The entire boat submarine was contaminated and within a few years 20 more men were dead.

The fate of the submarine and its crewmembers was secret until after the break up of the Soviet Union when the newspaper Pravda revealed that radiation had killed many members of the crew.

Causes and treatments for hair loss

It is normal to shed a certain amount of hair every day. If hair falls out in more significant amounts than usual, it can cause distress and worry.

While male and female pattern baldness is a primary cause of hair loss, there is a range of other reasons. A doctor will want to explore these before recommending the appropriate treatment.

In this article, we look at the leading causes of hair loss, the treatment available, and home care tips for preventing further loss.

Possible causes of hair loss include:

1. Androgenetic alopecia

Share on Pinterest Possible causes of hair loss include androgenetic alopecia, pregnancy, and telogen effluvium.

Androgenetic alopecia is another term for male or female pattern baldness. It is a very common cause of hair loss.

Both male and female pattern baldness is genetic. Males tend to lose hair from the temples and crown of the head. In females, hair usually becomes thinner all over the head.

Androgenetic alopecia is more likely to happen as a person ages but can start at any point after puberty. Many females who experience androgenetic alopecia develop it after going through the menopause. This means that hormones may have something to do with it.

It is possible to treat this condition with minoxidil, a medication for hair growth.

2. Pregnancy

Some women may experience excessive hair loss shortly after giving birth. This is due to a decrease in estrogen levels. This type of hair loss is a temporary condition and usually resolves within a year or sooner.

To help hair return to its normal condition, try:

  • using a volumizing shampoo and conditioner
  • using products designed for fine hair
  • avoiding intensive conditioners or conditioning shampoos as these can be too heavy for fine hair
  • applying conditioner to the ends of the hair, rather than the scalp, to avoid weighing hair down

3. Telogen effluvium

Telogen effluvium is a condition where the hair remains in the telogen (natural shedding) phase of the growth cycle. This causes more hair to fall out, sometimes in handfuls.

Telogen effluvium is usually a temporary condition that resolves over time. It is advisable to see a doctor to find out the cause.

Some possible causes include:

  • severe stress
  • surgery
  • childbirth
  • rapid weight loss
  • certain medications

A doctor will need to treat any underlying causes of telogen effluvium.

If a doctor suspects that specific medications are causing hair loss, they may change them.

4. Anagen effluvium

Anagen effluvium causes large amounts of hair to fall out rapidly during the anagen (growth) phase of the hair cycle.

The condition may cause hair to fall out from the head, as well as from other parts of the body, including eyebrows and eyelashes.

Causes of anagen effluvium include:

Treatment for this condition depends on the cause but can include a topical solution of minoxidil.

If a person has anagen effluvium as a result of undergoing chemotherapy, cooling the scalp during the procedure may help. Hair will often grow back 3–6 months after stopping chemotherapy.

5. Alopecia areata

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition that causes hair to fall out suddenly. The immune system attacks hair follicles, along with other healthy parts of the body.

Hair from the scalp, as well as eyebrows and eyelashes, may fall out in small chunks.

If a person has this condition, they should see a doctor. A doctor may prescribe medication to help the hair grow back.

6. Traction alopecia

Traction alopecia is hair loss due to pulling hair into tight hairstyles, which causes it to break and come loose. Hairstyles associated with this condition include:

If traction alopecia continues, a person may develop bald spots and thinning of the hair.

In terms of self-care, avoiding tight hairstyles will usually prevent further damage.

7. Medications

Certain medications have side effects that can cause hair to fall out.

Examples of such medications include:

  • blood thinners, such as warfarin
  • Accutane, to treat acne , including Prozac and Zoloft
  • cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as Lopid

If a person thinks hair loss may be due to a medication they are taking, they should consider seeing a doctor for an assessment. The doctor might be able to reduce the dosage or switch the person to a different medication.

8. Nutritional deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies can cause hair to fall out. Extreme diets that are too low in protein and certain vitamins, such as iron, can sometimes cause excessive hair shedding.

A person should see a doctor for a blood test to check if they have a nutritional deficiency that could be causing their hair to fall out.

9. Birth control pills

People may experience hair loss while using birth control pills. Others might experience hair loss several weeks or months after they stop taking them.

If people are taking birth control pills, they can choose one that has a low androgen index. This may help to lower the risk of hair loss.

Examples of birth control pills with a lower androgen index include:

Ovral and Loestrin have a higher androgen index.

Other forms of birth control that affect the hormones, such as implants and skin patches, may also cause hair loss.

The American Hair Loss Association recommend that people who have an increased risk of genetic hair loss opt for a non-hormonal type of birth control.

10. Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal infection that can cause hair loss. Ringworm on the scalp, or tinea capitis, can cause temporary bald areas on the head.

  • a small spot that gets bigger, causing scaly, bald patches of skin
  • brittle hair that breaks easily
  • itchy, red patches of skin in the affected areas
  • oozing blisters on the scalp
  • ring-like patches, with a red outside and the inside of the circle matching the skin tone

If ringworm does not heal by itself, then a doctor may prescribe an antifungal medicine. Alternatively, they may prescribe an antibiotic, such as Griseofulvin.

Radiation Exposure and Cancer Risk

Exposure to low-levels of radiation does not cause immediate health effects, but can cause a small increase in the risk riskThe probability of injury, disease or death from exposure to a hazard. Radiation risk may refer to all excess cancers caused by radiation exposure (incidence risk) or only excess fatal cancers (mortality risk). Risk may be expressed as a percent, a fraction, or a decimal value. For example, a 1% excess risk of cancer incidence is the same as a 1 in a hundred (1/100) risk or a risk of 0.01. of cancer over a lifetime. There are studies that keep track of groups of people who have been exposed to radiation, including atomic bomb survivors and radiation industry workers. These studies show that radiation exposure increases the chance of getting cancer, and the risk increases as the dose increases: the higher the dose, the greater the risk. Conversely, cancer risk from radiation exposure declines as the dose falls: the lower the dose, the lower the risk.

Radiation doses are commonly expressed in millisieverts (international units) or rem remThe U.S. unit to measure effective dose. The international unit is sieverts (Sv). (U.S. units). A dose can be determined from a one-time radiation exposure, or from accumulated exposures over time. About 99 percent of individuals would not get cancer as a result of a one-time uniform whole-body exposure of 100 millisieverts (10 rem) or lower. 1 At this dose, it would be extremely difficult to identify an excess in cancers caused by radiation when about 40 percent of men and women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetime.

Risks that are low for an individual could still result in unacceptable numbers of additional cancers in a large population over time. For example, in a population of one million people, an average one-percent increase in lifetime cancer risk for individuals could result in 10,000 additional cancers. The EPA sets regulatory limits and recommends emergency response guidelines well below 100 millisieverts (10 rem) to protect the U.S. population, including sensitive groups such as children, from increased cancer risks from accumulated radiation dose over a lifetime.

  • Your heart feels like it is beating faster than usual or you have shortness of breath.
  • You have a headache, dizziness, or blurred vision.
  • You are confused.
  • You see blood in your urine or bowel movements.
  • You vomit blood.
  • You do not urinate for an entire day.
  • You have new or severe pain anywhere in your body.
  • You have a fever.
  • The area of your skin where you received treatment blisters, peels, becomes more painful, or drains fluid.
  • You have trouble swallowing, feel like you are choking, or cough when you are eating or drinking.
  • You lose 5 pounds or more.
  • You feel extremely sad or have thoughts of suicide.
  • Your symptoms do not go away or get worse after you take your medicine.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

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