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Radiation Therapy Side Effects on the Immune System

by
author image Denise Stern
Denise Stern is an experienced freelance writer and editor. She has written professionally for more than seven years. Stern regularly provides content for health-related and elder-care websites and has an associate and specialized business degree in health information management and technology.
Radiation Therapy Side Effects on the Immune System
Radiation therapy. Photo Credit windcatcher/iStock/Getty Images
Medically Reviewed by
Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA

Overview

The immune system is responsible for keeping your body healthy and safe from attack by bacteria, viral and fungal infections. The immune system also helps the body heal wounds and damage to the skin or internal organs. Protecting you from germs, the immune system is made up of networks of organs, cells and tissues that are biologically programed to destroy foreign organisms that may harm you. A compromised immune system can't work efficiently to protect the body, leaving you open to illness or disease. Individuals undergoing radiation therapy may experience some damage to the body's immune system. Be aware of such dangers so you can make wise decisions regarding your health care.

Low-Dose Radiation

According to the Washington State Department of Health, low-dose exposure to radiation therapy may cause a number of cellular structure mutations, as well as irregularities in the placement and development of chromosomes in the body. Low-dose radiation exposure is defined as full body exposure to below a 50-rad rating exposure. Low-dose radiation has also been shown to affect the development, growth and function of lymphocytes in both children and adults. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that protect the body against a number of different types of infection.

Be aware of the risk of leukemia as a side effect of low-dose radiation exposure. Talk to your doctor about the risks and side effects of any type of radiation exposure, as such side effects may depend on the number of therapies and duration of the exposure.

High-Dose Radiation

High-dose radiation is considered to be exposure of the entire body to radiation treatments of above 50 rad, according to the Washing State Department of Health. Effects of high-dose radiation therapies occur faster than those caused by low-dose exposure. Lymphocytes may be destroyed within 48 hours after therapy. For several weeks after exposure, more white cells die, leaving the body vulnerable to infection. Other side effects may include infection, fever and bleeding.

Those who have received between 50 and 200 rad exposure of radiation will more than likely feel nauseous and experience bouts of vomiting and some white cell count decrease, but recover with adequate medical support.

Extremely High Doses of Radiation

A person exposed to over 1,500 rad risk extreme danger of death, while individuals exposed to between 500 and 1,500 rad may experience severe organ damage. The risk of fatality is high for those who receive such high doses of radiation, even following a bone marrow transplant. If you've received between 200 and 400 rad, your chance of survival is good with adequate medical support.

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