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I grew up in the last days of the Cold War; learning how to “duck and cover” and having drills in school where we were herded into what was supposed to pass for a fallout shelter, but really wouldn’t work.
I was glad when the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was over, thinking that the threat of nuclear war was finally over. Naively, I believed our government when they said that most of the nuclear weapons had been destroyed. While that statement was technically true, both we and Russia still retain a lot of nuclear bombs and warheads. But that hasn’t been a concern until recently.
Vladimir Putin, the president/dictator of Russia, grew up under the old system, like I did. The difference is that he became part of the KGB and fondly remembers the glory days of the Soviet Union, when they had an empire to rule. His dream is to bring that empire back, no matter how many he has to kill to make it happen.
That brings us to the place we are today, with Putin invading Ukraine for the second time and holding the world at bay with the threat of nuclear warfare. Our big concern today is what would happen if Vladimir Putin decided to push the button and unleash even one nuclear missile. Would that turn into full-blown nuclear warfare, with the United States and Russia sending hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles at each other?
Nuclear war is the most efficient means of killing known to mankind, with the ability to create casualties measured in the millions. Many will die in the initial blast, but there is a potential for many more to die of radiation sickness. The big difference is that they will suffer for weeks before dying.
Radiation from a nuclear explosion can have many effects on the human body, all of them negative. Absorbing more than 4 or 5 SV (sievert) is enough to kill someone outright. But smaller doses can cause serious problems too. Exposure to 500 mSv (millisieverts) is enough to cause radiation sickness.
This is much higher than one can receive from background radiation levels that exist all around us (about 3 mSv per year) or even from any medical treatment that involves radiation (x-rays 0.004 to 0.8 mSv). Even people who work in the nuclear power industry don’t absorb anywhere near this amount. They are limited by regulations to a maximum exposure of 50 mSv per year.
Without knowledge that the patient has been exposed to excessive radiation, it can be easy for doctors to misdiagnose radiation sickness as something else. That’s because the symptoms caused by radiation sickness are the same sorts of symptoms that doctors see every day. But when the doctor knows that the patient has been exposed to excessive radiation, it immediately paints a very clear picture of radiation sickness.
What Are The Symptoms of Radiation Sickness?
The most common are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Depending on the amount of radiation absorbed, these can start almost immediately or wait several days. They can also come and go.
On a more obvious basis, people who are closer to the blast will often have burnt skin, anywhere from looking like a bad sunburn to blisters and sores. Many sources list this as “third degree sunburn” but it doesn’t have to be as bad as third degree burns to be a sign of radiation sickness. Hair loss is also possible, just as it is for cancer patients who receive radiation therapy, and may be permanent.
Don’t be confused by symptoms disappearing; that’s just the body fighting back. If you suspect that a family or team member has been exposed to radiation and has any of these symptoms, have them checked out. Symptoms that disappear may come back and when they do, they’ll come back with a vengeance.
How Can You Treat Radiation Sickness?
Treating radiation sickness can be challenging and generally requires the services of a complete hospital. Nevertheless, there are some things that we can do, both as first aid and in cases when we can’t get the patient to a hospital.
Stop the Radiation
The first and possibly most important thing to do is to prevent the patient from being exposed to more radiation. That may require moving them to a safer environment; but even that is not enough, as they might unknowingly bring radiation with them on their clothing and on their skin.
Remove the potentially contaminated clothing and dispose of it, even if you are unsure whether or not their clothing is contaminated. Bathe the patient thoroughly, especially washing the hair carefully to remove any radioactive particles. A lot can be accomplished to slow the disease by just removing any potential for further contamination. This won’t heal them, but hopefully it will help prevent them from getting worse.
Use Potassium Iodide
Potassium Iodide is normally used to help prevent radiation sickness. It is absorbed by the thyroid gland, preventing the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. Since the thyroid needs iodine to function, stopping this avenue of contamination will help stop the disease. Radioactive iodine that is in the system will eventually be flushed out in the urine.
Treatments to Flush Out Radiation
There are two other types of medicines which are given to help flush radiation out of the system. Prussian Blue, sold under the name “Radiogardase”, is a dye that binds to particles of radioactive cesium and thallium, allowing them to be excreted in feces, speeding up the natural process of these elements being naturally expelled from the system.
Unfortunately, this cannot be purchased over the counter. It should be noted that other types of prussian blue, such as that used by artists, should not be used in place of the medical grade, as they won’t accomplish the same thing.
The other chemical that is used to help flush radioactive particles from the body is diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA). This chemical bonds to metals, specifically plutonium, americium and curium, allowing them to pass out of the body in urine. It can be purchased over the counter, mostly from industrial and laboratory supply houses, as it has other industrial uses.
The gross symptoms of radiation poisoning come from the damage that the radiation has done to the gastrointestinal system. In addition to these symptoms, the organs in question might be damaged to the point where it causes internal bleeding. Signs of internal bleeding can include blood in the urine, blood in the stool and dropping blood pressure.
If the patient’s blood pressure is dropping, there is little chance of them surviving without a blood infusion. However, if you have the ability to administer a saline IV, that will help them to not lose too much blood volume, which could give their bodies time to stop the bleeding.
Other things that can be done naturally to help stop internal bleeding include drinking a lot of water, taking vitamin K, and increasing fiber in the diet.
Treating Bone Marrow
One of the more dangerous things that radiation sickness does is destroy the body’s bone marrow, the birthplace of white blood cells. Many people who die of radiation sickness actually die of a secondary infection, like pneumonia, which is able to kill them because of the lack of sufficient white blood cells to combat the infection.
This is not something that can be treated in the home, even in an emergency survival situation. Special medicines or even a bone marrow transplant are necessary. Nevertheless, if potential infections can be kept at bay, the body will eventually replace the damaged bone marrow, although that could take as long as two years.
Thanks to COVID-19, we all know how to avoid bacterial and viral infections. This is essential to those who have a loss of bone marrow and the resulting low white cell count, in addition to ensuring that food and drink are pure. If we can keep the disease-causing pathogens out or the body, the body’s autoimmune system doesn’t have to fight them.
A doctor who is treating a patient with radiation sickness will constantly monitor all aspects of their health, looking for signs of infection. They will treat those infections aggressively, generally using antibiotics. They will also treat symptoms, seeking to keep the body strong.
Depending on the degree of burn to the skin, the body should be able to heal from those burns naturally, even if the skin blisters. However, it should be noted that popped blisters offer one more place for bacteria to get into the body, so those blisters need to be kept clean and disinfected.
The best treatment for the burn itself is a skin moisturizer with aloe vera or soy in it. Other than that, treatment is mostly limited to dealing with the pain by taking frequent showers, drinking extra water, and taking pain relievers. Protect the skin from exposure to the sun and other sources of heat.
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