X-rays, Gamma Rays, and Cancer Risk

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Do x-rays and gamma rays cause any other health problems?

X-rays and gamma rays can cause a number of other problems besides cancer. What problems occur depend upon the radiation dose, the timing of the exposure, and what areas of the body are exposed.

Exposure to high doses of radiation over a short period of time can cause radiation sickness (sometimes called radiation poisoning or acute radiation syndrome) and even death. Some of the symptoms of radiation sickness include fainting, confusion, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, skin and mouth sores, and bleeding. The atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to many cases of radiation sickness. Since then, some cases have resulted from nuclear power plant accidents, such as those in Chernobyl and in Fukushima.

Doses of radiation such as those given in radiation therapy also cause side effects. Short-term side effects depend on the area being treated but often include skin changes (ranging from mild reddening to something like a severe burn), nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and low blood cell counts. There is also a risk of long-term side effects, which again vary depending on the area being treated. For example, radiation to the head and neck area can lead to problems with dry mouth and trouble swallowing. Radiation can weaken bones, so that they are more likely to break later on. Radiation to the bone marrow can lead to long-term problems with blood cell counts and even a disease called aplastic anemia. Radiation can also lead to infertility (problems getting pregnant or fathering children)

Lower doses of radiation, such as from imaging tests are not known to cause short-term health problems.


Last Medical Review: 05/02/2013
Last Revised: 04/18/2014