Radiation burns are caused by exposure to radiation such as UV, X-ray, or radio waves. They are typically shallow but can be very painful or irritating. Radiation can potentially alter cell structure and lead to dangerous long term side effects, such as cancer, which make prevention of radiation burns particularly important.
With the advances in modern technology, humans are exposed to radiation on a daily basis. Microwaves, TVs, computers and phones are just a few of the numerous devices that emit radiation. But not all radiation has the potential to cause radiation burns. Most of the devices that we come in contact with every day emit radiation that is too weak to damage body tissue.
Other forms of technology, such as radios, emit radiation that has the potential to inflict injury, but these technologies are highly regulated to prevent the potential for mass radiation injuries. For example, body tissue will convert certain high frequency radio waves into heat, so the FCC monitors dangerous frequencies to ensure public safety. Below are the two types of radiation that are the most likely to cause radiation burns.
By far, the most common form of radiation burn is a sunburn. Sunlight is a type of electromagnetic radiation produced by the sun. It includes infrared, visible and ultraviolet (UV) light. In regards to radiation burns, UV is the most harmful.
UV radiation can be broken down into three parts: UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C. UV-C is potentially the most harmful, but it is completely blocked by the earth’s atmosphere, particularly the ozone layer of the stratosphere. The ozone layer also blocks a significant portion of UV-B, but enough UV-B gets through to damage skin. UV-B is the main cause of sunburn. Excessive exposure can cause severe medical complications such as cataracts or cancer. UV-A makes up the largest part of UV radiation that reaches earth, but it is also the least damaging component of UV radiation. Nevertheless, UV-A is still potentially harmful and is associated with premature aging of the skin and skin cancer.
Radiation can be helpful as well as harmful. Many types of radiation are used in the medical profession for diagnostic and treatment purposes. X-rays, CT scans, and PET scans expose people to low levels of radiation in order to create internal pictures of the body. X-rays, gamma rays, and other forms of ionizing radiation are also effective methods for treating certain types of cancer.
But in addition to their beneficial effects, medical radiation can also lead to radiation burns. The most prevalent form of radiation burn associated with medical radiation is radiation dermatitis. It is most often caused by radiotherapy that is used to treat underlying medical conditions. Radiation dermatitis can be either acute or chronic.
Acute radiation dermatitis presents within a relatively short period of time after treatment, within 90 days. Patients may experience redness, peeling skin, dead skin cells, and/or ulcers at the site of the radiation. The National Cancer Institute classifies acute radiation dermatitis into four categories.
- Grade 1 – Faint reddening of the skin
- Grade 2 – Moderate, patchy reddening of the skin. Skin peeling near skin folds and creases. Moderate swelling.
- Grade 3 – Larger sections of skin peeling, greater than 1.5 cm diameter, not confined to the skin folds. Severe swelling.
- Grade 4 – Full thickness skin necrosis and/or ulcerations. The necrosis extends into the dermis—living tissue that makes up the internal layer of skin which contains blood capillaries, nerve endings, sweat glands, hair follicles, and other structures.
Chronic radiation dermatitis may begin within 15 days of the beginning of radiation therapy and continue for 10 years or more. It begins as acute radiation and expands into further inflammatory changes in the skin over time. Chronic radiation dermatitis can be characterized by the following skin conditions:
- Disappearance of pores,
- Delicate skin which tears easily,
- Pronounced clusters of blood vessels (often spidery in appearance).
Radiation burns appear similar to thermal burns. First degree burns will appear as dry, red skin. The victim may be in moderate pain and the site of the burn may itch. Second degree burns will appear as moist, red skin with small or large blisters. The skin will often begin to slough off in small pieces. Victims will be in moderate to severe pain.
Unlike thermal burns, symptoms of radiation burns may not present immediately upon exposure to the radiation source. The delay can range from a few hours to several weeks. Radiation recall is a specific type of delayed reaction where symptoms appear at the site of previous radiation exposure after exposure to another chemotherapy agent.
The greatest danger from radiation burns is the potential to cause damage to the cellular structure which can potentially lead to cell mutation and cancer. Even minor radiation burns can cause serious complications over time. Victims of radiation burns are at an increased risk of experiencing additional radiation burns in the future and should take increased precautions.
The burned area needs to be kept clean without causing additional damage. The skin will often be extra sensitive and tear more easily than healthy skin. Wash the area with warm water using unscented soap. Avoid using ointments or alcohol that may irritate the skin. Do not use a washcloths, loofahs, or sponges and avoid excessive rubbing which can tear the skin. Rinse well and pat dry.
The affected area should be kept moist using mild, fragrant free moisturizers. Avoid applying any makeup, perfumes, powders or aftershave. Wear soft, loose fitting clothing that covers the entire burn area and prevents additional exposure to radiation from the sun. In the case of severe irritation or discomfort, seek medical advice.