Radiation damage to cells in the body can happen after a person receives radiation therapy to treat cancer. It can also happen if a person is exposed to radiation through x-ray imaging, nuclear power, or fallout from nuclear weapons. If severe enough, radiation damage may cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems. Doctors try to protect people undergoing radiation therapy for cancer by using low doses, being precise about where the radiation is targeted, and minimizing side effects. Usually side effects go away after the treatment stops.
Radiation damage can cause a number of symptoms. These are common side effects when a person undergoes radiation treatment for cancer:
Radiation sickness or radiation emergency happens after exposure to a large amount of radiation. Acute radiation sickness occurs within 24 hours of exposure. Chronic radiation syndrome is a range of symptoms occurring over a period of time. These symptoms can happen immediately or months or years after exposure to radiation:
Damage happens when radiation interacts with oxygen, causing certain molecules to form in the body. These molecules can damage or break strands of DNA in cells. The cells may die.
People who have been exposed to radiation and who also have the following conditions or characteristics are at risk for developing radiation damage:
If you have symptoms of radiation damage, you should see your doctor right away. A physical exam, lab tests, pathology tests, and imaging procedures such as barium radiography or colonoscopy may be performed.
If you are receiving radiation treatment to treat cancer, your doctor will try to prevent or reduce the risk of radiation damage and radiation side effects. Your doctor may administer low-dose radiation, use chemicals to protect from radiation, and use special shields for other parts of your body. Some medications may help reduce side effects.
The treatment plan depends on the type of radiation damage. If a person is exposed to a high amount of radiation, they will need to be decontaminated and may need transfusions of fluids, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. If you have radiation side effects from cancer treatment, your doctor may be able to give you medications and ointments to reduce them.
Your doctor may prescribe a variety of medications, depending on your symptoms. To treat side effects from radiation during cancer treatment, your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea medications, oral rinses for your mouth, and hydrocortisone cream for your skin.
Surgery may be needed to stop more cell damage, or to graft healthy tissue onto a damaged area.
A comprehensive treatment plan for managing the effects of radiation may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. If you are taking prescription medications or have pre-existing medical complications, talk to your health care provider before using complementary and alternative therapies.
If you are undergoing radiation therapy for cancer treatment, ask your oncologist before taking any supplement or vitamin. While some supplements may help, others may be harmful or interfere with certain cancer treatments. Make sure all your doctors know about all treatments you are considering.
These nutritional tips may help reduce side effects from radiation therapy:
These supplements may also help:
Herbs are generally available as standardized, dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures/liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with your favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls per cup of water, steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need longer).
If you are undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, ask your oncologist before taking any herb.
Radium bromatum is specific for radiation poisoning, especially followed by arthritic complaints. Acute dose is three to five pellets of 12X to 30C every 1 - 4 hours until symptoms are relieved.
The prognosis depends on the level of radiation exposure, how quickly the person can be treated, and how detailed the follow-up is. Long-term complications may include cancer, liver failure, infertility, and thickening and scarring of lung, liver, and kidney tissue.
Baliga MS, Katiyar SK. Chemoprevention of photocarcinogenesis by selected dietary botanicals. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2006;5(2):243-53.
Bolderston A, Lloyd NS, Wong RD, et al. The prevention and management of acute skin reactions related to radiation therapy: a systematic review and practice guideline. Support Care Cancer. 2006;14(8):802-17.
Cabrera C, Artacho R, Gimenez R. Beneficial effects of green tea -- a review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2006;25(2):79-99.
C Jagetia G. Radioprotective Potential of Plants and Herbs against the Effects of Ionizing Radiation. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2007 Mar;40(2):74-81.
Devi PU, Ganasoundari A. Modulation of glutathione and antioxidant enzymes by Ocimum sanctum and its role in protection against radiation injury. Indian J Exp Biol. 1999 Mar;37(3):262-8.
Doron S, Gorbach SL. Probiotics: their role in the treatment and prevention of disease. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2006;4(2):261-75.
Dryden GW Jr, Deaciuc I, Arteel G, McClain CJ. Clinical implications of oxidative stress and antioxidant therapy. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2005;7(4):308-16.
Johnson MA. Nutrition and aging -- practical advice for healthy eating. J Am Med Womens Assoc. 2004;59(4):262-9.
Katiyar SK. Silymarin and skin cancer prevention: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immunomodulatory effects (Review). Int J Oncol. 2005;26(1):169-76.
Kelemen LE, Cerhan JR, Lim U, et al. Vegetables, fruit, and antioxidant-related nutrients and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma: a National Cancer Institute-Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results population-based case-control study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83(6):1401-10.
Lee TK, Johnke RM, Alllison RR, O’Brien KF, Dobbs LJ Jr. Radioprotective potential of ginseng. Mutagenesis. 2005;20(4):237-43.
Lee TK, O'Brien KF, Wang W, Johnke RM, Sheng C, Benhabib SM, Wang T, Allison RR. Radioprotective effect of american ginseng on human lymphocytes at 90 minutes postirradiation: a study of 40 cases. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 May;16(5):561-7.
MacLean CH, Newberry SJ, Mojica WA, et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer risk: a systematic review. JAMA. 2006;295(4):403-15. Review.
Rotsein OD. Oxidants and antioxidant therapy. Crit Care Clin. 2001;17(1):239-47.
Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002;21(6):495-505.
Wan XS, Ware JH, Zhou Z, Donahe JJ, et al. Protection against radiation-induced oxidative stress in cultured human epithelial cells by treatment with antioxidant agents. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2006;64(5):1475-81
© 2011 University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). All rights reserved.
UMMC is a member of the University of Maryland Medical System,
22 S. Greene Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. TDD: 1-800-735-2258 or 1.866.408.6885