Nuclear technologies allow doctors to efficiently diagnose and treat multiple diseases but long-term exposure to radiation is harmful for the human body. In this article, you will get to know what medical specialists do to reduce the negative impact of radiation.
Doctors have been using radiation for over a century now to diagnose and treat diseases. In the last 30 years, the progress of nuclear medicine has been particularly impressive — but radiation still remains harmful for living creatures. Patients are subject only to minimal doses of it and for a short while. Doctors might need to deal with radiation daily and for many years. In this article, you will get to know how medical specialists protect themselves and how they manage to stay healthy when fulfilling their professional duties.
What Doctors Do to Protect Themselves When Examining the Patients
The type of radiation used for medical examinations is called secondary or scatter radiation. The most dangerous type of radiation is primary. Primary means that the beam does not interact with any other substance before reaching the patient’s body. Secondary means that there is a screen, or a wall, or some other obstacle between the source of radiation and the living creature. Secondary radiation is much weaker than primary. It is not beneficial or entirely harmless for a human body — yet its advantages outweigh that small harm that it might cause.
Doctors and manufacturers of medical equipment strive to minimize the radiation dose and the time of the patient’s exposure to it. Manufacturers of medical equipment typically allow doctors to configure its setting and modify the dose. The principle these professionals stick to is known as ALARA: this abbreviation stands for “as low as reasonably achievable”. If the radiation does not enable the doctor to accurately diagnose or treat the disease, it should not be used.
When carrying out radiography, doctors try to take as few pictures as possible. To achieve it, they learn to use magnification properly. The results of the investigation should be detailed enough to avoid the necessity of repetition. This becomes especially important if the patient moves from one healthcare unit to another. The rarer the patient undergoes radioactive examinations, the better.
All these measures enable medical specialists to minimize the impact of the radiation both on their patients and themselves. Plus, they wear aprons, gloves and glasses that reduce or block their radiation exposure. In the rooms where they work, there are barriers made of lead of lead equivalents to shield gamma rays and X-rays. The more the distance between a human and the source of the radiation, the better. The exposure reduces by the distance squared.
What Doctors Do When Giving Treatment to Patients
The radiation doses applied for treatment are much higher than those used for diagnostics. When carrying out these procedures and taking care of patients afterward, medical specialists wear protective gear. If they need to give radioactive drugs to the patients, they store these preparations in containers that hold the radiation inside.
If the person is exposed to radiation just for a short while, such a technique is called external radiation therapy. Once the procedure is over, the patient will not emit radiation.
But to cure cancer doctors sometimes implant a source of radiation inside the patient’s tissues. This approach is known as brachytherapy or internal radiation therapy. It impacts primarily those cells that were affected by cancer. Its impact on the surrounding tissues is minimal. However, the patient can give off a small amount of radiation as long as the implant remains inside their body. If it was a temporary implant, the person will stop emitting radiation once the doctor removes this object out of their organism. Permanent implants remain inside the tissues forever but over time they give off less and less radiation.
Individuals with implants need to spend a few days or weeks in a shielded ward. Its walls, floor and ceiling keep the radiation inside. Such patients cannot see visitors, especially if these are children, pregnant ladies or pets. To flush the radioactive substances out of their organisms, they drink extra fluids. When working with such patients, doctors avoid any contact not only with their bodies but also with their urine, sweat, blood and saliva. The hospital washes towels and bed linen of such patients separately from the rest.
What Doctors Do When They Are Affected by Radiation Sickness
When medical professionals need to work in emergency circumstances, they might get radiation sickness. This might happen, for instance, when they work in an area when a nuclear disaster broke out and are exposed to a large dose of radiation over a short period of time. In this case, the most immediate symptoms will be:
- Low blood pressure
- Disorientation and dizziness
To come back to normal, doctors should measure the radiation level of the environment and detect the distance between themselves and the source of the radiation. This enables them to understand how severely they were affected.
They need to throw away the clothes, shoes and other items that were exposed to radiation and take a shower, washing their body from head to toe with soap. To prevent the impact of the radiation on bone marrow, they take a protein called granulocyte colony-stimulating factor. If the damage to bone marrow is too severe, they might need to receive transfusions of blood platelets or red blood cells. Other preparations that might relieve their condition are potassium iodide, Prussian blue and diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid — they help to reduce the amount of radiation absorbed by the organism.
Nuclear technologies are widely used in medicine. They deliver especially impressive results in curing oncological diseases and performing such diagnostic techniques as body composition analysis, mammography, bone mineral densitometry, X-ray, fluoroscopy and CT imaging. To protect themselves and patients from the harmful impact of the radiation, doctors try to resort to these procedures only if it is absolutely necessary. They wear protective gear, resort to secondary radiation and minimize the exposure by properly configuring the equipment. When the medical staff complies with security instructions, the benefit of the radiation outweighs any potential harm from its minute doses. Only emergencies might lead to radiation sickness, which is extremely rare.