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What is Potassium Iodide?

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After fears that Japanese nuclear plants would experience Chernobyl-like meltdowns, people have started stocking up on potassium iodide, especially those on the West coast of the United States. While I think the media sensationalized this story and people in the U.S. overreacted, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be prepared. But what exactly is it, why would it protect you from radiation, and is it safe for anyone? I’ll try and answer some of these questions in this article. Please note that I am not a medical doctor and that you take potassium iodide at your own risk.

What is it?

Potassium iodide is the salt form of iodide, a substance that appears throughout nature, especially in the ocean.

Why take it for radiation?

After a nuclear disaster, radioactive iodine (radioiodine) spreads into the surrounding environment. If it’s inhaled or ingested, it sits in the thyroid gland and increases the risk of cancer and a host of other thyroid problems. But if you take potassium iodide, the thyroid is flooded with more iodine than it needs so there’s no room left for the uptake of radioiodine.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that potassium iodide doesn’t actually protect from radiation, just from radioiodine. Also, you have to take it before the radioiodine reaches your area. Many people near Chernobyl got thyroid cancer even though they took potassium iodide because they waited too long.

Is it safe for anyone?

No. It’s safe for most people, but before taking potassium iodide, you should talk to your doctor if you have any of these medical conditions:

  • Thyroid problems
  • Kidney problems
  • A shellfish allergy (which could caused by the iodine in the shell)
  • Addison’s disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Dermatitis
  • Goiter

You should also talk to your doctor if you’re pregnant or have small children, as they should take the smallest does necessary.

When should you take it?

Keep the television on and listen to the radio. You shouldn’t starting taking it until public health officials tell you to. The reason is because taking potassium iodide for more than two weeks can cause some unpleasant side effects, the worst of which is hypothyroidism (where the thyroid shuts down).

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For more details, check the FDA’s Frequently Asked Questions on Potassium Iodide.

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