Do X-rays and Gamma Rays Cause Health Problems Other than Cancer?

X-rays and gamma rays can cause a number of other problems besides cancer. What problems occur depends on factors such as 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. Some cases have also resulted from nuclear power plant accidents, such as the one in Chernobyl.

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 might 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, making them more likely to break later on.
  • Radiation to the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made) can lead to long-term problems with blood cell counts and even a disease called aplastic anemia.
  • Radiation to the pelvic area might 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.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Environmental Protection Agency. Radiation Health Effects. 2022. Accessed at https://www.epa.gov/radiation/radiation-health-effects on November 4, 2022.

National Research Council of the National Academies. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2. 2006. Accessed at https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/11340/chapter/1 on November 4, 2022.

Written by

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

References

Environmental Protection Agency. Radiation Health Effects. 2022. Accessed at https://www.epa.gov/radiation/radiation-health-effects on November 4, 2022.

National Research Council of the National Academies. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2. 2006. Accessed at https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/11340/chapter/1 on November 4, 2022.

Last Revised: November 10, 2022