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Table of Contents > Conditions > Radiation Damage
Radiation Damage
Signs and Symptoms
What Causes It?
Who's Most At Risk?
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Treatment Options
Treatment Plan
Drug Therapies
Surgical and Other Procedures
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Prognosis/Possible Complications
Supporting Research

Radiation damage may occur after a patient receives radiation therapy or is exposed to products or substances containing radiation, such as excessive X-ray imaging, nuclear power, or fallout from atomic weapons. Radiation damage may cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems. Acute radiation sickness occurs within 24 hours of exposure. Chronic radiation syndrome involves a range of symptoms occurring over an extended time.

Signs and Symptoms

Radiation damage is accompanied by the following signs and symptoms, which can occur immediately or appear months or years later.

  • Radiation syndrome—malaise, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, fever, headache; with bleeding and complications affecting the digestive system, nervous system, heart, and lungs
  • Central nervous system diseases
  • Kidney, liver, or gastrointestinal problems
  • Poor growth in children
  • Skin conditions
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the sac around the heart)
  • Lung infections or conditions, respiratory failure
  • Vision impairment; cataracts
  • Dysfunction of the reproductive organs

What Causes It?

Damage occurs when radiation interacts with oxygen, causing certain molecules to form that are capable of damaging or breaking strands of DNA in the body's cells. This can result in cell death.

Who's Most At Risk?

People who have been exposed to radiation and who also have the following conditions or characteristics are at risk for developing radiation damage.

  • High dose of radiation exposure
  • Young age at time of exposure
  • Use of chemotherapy, antibiotics
  • Exposure to radiation prior to birth (while in the womb)

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with radiation damage, you should see your health care provider. A physical exam, lab tests, pathology tests, and imaging procedures such as barium radiography or colonoscopy may be performed.

Treatment Options

If you are receiving radiation treatment to treat cancer, your health care provider can take certain precautions to help prevent or reduce the risk of radiation damage. These may include administering low-dose radiation, using radio-protectant chemicals, and using special shields for other parts of your body.

Treatment Plan

The treatment plan depends on the type of radiation damage. Decontamination, if warranted, is essential. Transfusion of fluids, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets may be necessary.

Drug Therapies

Your provider may prescribe a variety of medications, depending on the specific ailments resulting from radiation damage.

Surgical and Other Procedures

Surgery may be required to prevent further cell damage, or to graft healthy tissue onto a damaged area.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

A comprehensive treatment plan for radiation damage may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies.

  • Follow a whole-foods diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and anti-inflammatory fats (for example, cold-water fish, nuts, and seeds).
  • Avoid pro-inflammatory and nutrient-poor foods such as caffeine, alcohol, sugar, saturated fats (for example, animal products), refined foods, and additives.

Potentially beneficial nutrient supplements include the following.

  • Vitamin C (1,000 mg three to four times per day), vitamin E (400 IU two to three times per day), coenzyme Q10 (100 mg two to three times per day), and melatonin (2 to 10 mg per day)
  • Glutathione (500 mg two times per day)
  • Vitamin A (10,000 IU per day) or beta carotene (25,000 IU per day) and zinc (30 mg per day).
  • L-glutamine (3 to 10 g three times per day) protects intestinal mucosa.
  • Bromelain (250 to 500 mg between meals) decreases inflammation. Use with turmeric (Curcuma longa, 500 mg four times per day).


Herbal remedies may offer relief from symptoms. Herbs are generally available as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose for teas is 1 heaping tsp/cup water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20 minutes).

  • Rutin (100 mg to 200 mg one to three times per day)
  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), 100 mg three times per day
  • Gotu kola (Centella asiatica), 1,000 mg four times per day or standardized extract 60 mg twice a day

The following may be helpful for acute effects.

  • Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) tea to soothe inflamed tissues. Soak 1 heaping tbsp. of root in 1 quart of cold water overnight. Strain and drink throughout the day. May be taken long-term.
  • Equal parts of coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), marigold (Calendula officinalis), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), plantain (Plantago lanceolata), and wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) provide immune support, enhance healing, and relieve pain. Take 30 to 60 drops four times per day for six to eight weeks.
  • For long-term use, combine goldenseal, licorice root, marigold, red clover (Trifolium pratense), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Take 30 to 60 drops two to four times per day.


Radium bromatum is specific for radiation poisoning, especially followed by arthritic complaints. Acute dose is three to five pellets of 12X to 30C every one to four hours until symptoms are relieved.

Physical Medicine

A body wash of coneflower, goldenseal, comfrey root (Symphytum officinalis), and sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) helps healing and reduces the risk of infection. Vitamin E oil applied to the skin twice daily, and Aloe vera extract applied as needed help healing.

Prognosis/Possible Complications

The outcome varies depending on the level of radiation exposure, the promptness of treatment, and the thoroughness of ongoing monitoring. Long-term complications may include cancer, liver failure, deformity, sterility, and thickening and scarring of lung, liver, and kidney tissue.

Supporting Research

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. Boston, Mass: Integrative Medicine Communications; 1998:100,123,167,170,222.

Brenner BM, Rector FC. The Kidney. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders; 1996.

Cecil RI, Plum F, Bennett JC, eds. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders; 1996.

Dambro MR. Griffith's 5-Minute Clinical Consult. 1999 ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.; 1999.

De Vita VT, ed. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven Publishers; 1997.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Isselbacher KJ, et al, eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 14th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1998.

Feldman M, ed. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders; 1998.

Gruenwald J, Brendler T, et al, eds. PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company; 1998: 898,899,924,925.

Morrison R. Desktop Guide to Keynotes and Confirmatory Symptoms. Albany, Calif: Hahnemann Clinic Publishing; 1993.

Rakel RE, ed. Conn's Current Therapy. 51st ed. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders; 1999.

Scott JR, ed. Danforth's Obstetrics & Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven Publishers; 1994.

Pizzo PA, Poplack DG. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven Publishers; 1997.

Wilson JD. Williams Textbook of Endrocrinology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders; 1998.

Review Date: March 2000
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Peter Hinderberger, MD, PhD, Ruscombe Mansion Community Health Center, Baltimore, MD; Anne McClenon, ND, Compass Family Health Center, Plymouth, MA.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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