How Much Radiation is Too Much? - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Published on June 26, 2015

How Much Radiation is Too Much?

Radiation is commonly used for medical imaging, cancer therapy and other medical procedures.

Radiation is commonly used for medical imaging,
cancer therapy and other medical procedures.

Generally, we try to stay far away from the things that can hurt us or make us sick. In some cases, however, small amounts of these harmful things might actually help us.

Radiation therapy, for example, uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA. Radiation is also used in many imaging services. CT scans, PET scans and x-rays all use radiation to help diagnose health issues such as tumors and broken bones.

As you already know, however, too much radiation can be extremely harmful to the body, increasing one’s risk for various diseases and death. So how do you know you’re not overexposing yourself to it?

Although there are no specific guidelines that identify how much radiation is too much, it is important to note that what might be too much for one person will be different for another. A certain level of radiation may be safe for a cancer patient with a malignant tumor, but it may not be safe for a healthy individual.

The Side Effects of Radiation Exposure

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to prevent radiation from damaging healthy cells during radiation therapy, even though the goal is to kill cancerous cells. To limit the damage to normal cells, however, your doctor(s) will carefully plan the treatment course to ensure the risk is as low as possible.

Those undergoing radiation therapy might experience early (occurs during treatment) and/or late side effects (happens months or years after treatment ends). Acute side effects include skin irritation or damage at areas exposed to the radiation beams, damage to the salivary glands, hair loss, urinary problems, fatigue and nausea. Late side effects might include fibrosis, damage to the bowels, memory loss and infertility.

Most effects go away after treatment, but some can be permanent.

Preventing Overexposure to Radiation

To limit your exposure to radiation, you and your doctor(s) must determine if the pros outweigh the cons.

Before radiation therapy begins, for example, doctors must consider the potential damage to normal cells and determine how much radiation will be safe. Certain types of radiation therapy might be administered once a day to further minimize damage to healthy tissue.

During treatment, you may want to ask both your oncologist and technician what dose will be used to ensure there are no discrepancies. Additionally, always ask your doctor or technician to cover areas of your body that are not being tested during a medical exam that uses radiation.

Any test that includes radiation that you receive should be recorded and shared with your doctor.

Small doses of radiation aren’t a bad thing, but it’s important that you and your doctor monitor your exposure.

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