Skip to Content

Can radiation burn you?

Radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or particles. There are many different types of radiation, including ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, x-rays used in medical imaging, and radiation from radioactive materials. Exposure to high levels of radiation can cause damage to the body, but whether it can burn you depends on the type and dose of radiation.

What is Radiation?

Radiation is energy that is emitted by matter in the form of waves or particles. Some examples of radiation include:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun
  • X-rays used in medical imaging
  • Alpha particles emitted by some radioactive materials
  • Gamma rays emitted by radioactive atoms
  • Microwaves used in communications and cooking

Not all types of radiation are harmful. Visible light, radio waves, and microwaves at low doses are considered non-ionizing radiation. They do not have enough energy to remove electrons from atoms and cause cellular damage.

Other types like x-rays, gamma rays, and UV rays are ionizing radiation. Their high energy waves or particles can strip electrons from atoms and break chemical bonds. This can damage DNA and cause cellular mutation.

Effects of Radiation Exposure

The effects of radiation depend on the radiation dose. Radiation dose refers to the amount of radiation absorbed by the body. It is measured in units called gray (Gy) for the International System of Units (SI) or rad for the conventional units.

The higher the radiation dose, the greater the risk of harm:

  • Low dose: No obvious symptoms. Increased lifetime cancer risk possible.
  • Moderate dose: Some symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Increased cancer risk.
  • High dose: Skin burns, acute radiation sickness. High cancer risk.
  • Very high dose: Skin blistering, nerve damage, organ failure. Exposure can be fatal.

The type of radiation also matters. Alpha particles and neutrons cause more damage per unit of radiation than gamma or x-rays.

Can Radiation Cause Burns?

Yes, exposure to high doses of radiation can cause skin burns. Ionizing radiation like x-rays and gamma rays can penetrate deep into tissue and deposit enough energy to cause cellular damage and destruction.

Radiation burns occur when the top layer of skin absorbs 10 Gy or more in a short time. That destroys epithelial stem cells responsible for regenerating the epidermis.

Radiation burns look similar to thermal burns, but damage continues to develop even after exposure stops. Symptoms include:

  • Reddening and tanning of exposed skin
  • Blistering and peeling weeks after exposure
  • Slow healing wounds with infection risk

The severity depends on the radiation dose. A dose over 50 Gy causes full thickness burns through the entire skin layer. But very high doses (over 100 Gy) can destroy tissue down to the bone.

Common Causes of Radiation Burns

Radiation therapy for cancer treatment is one potential cause of radiation burns. High energy x-rays or proton beams target tumor cells but can also damage surrounding normal tissues.

Radiation burns are a common side effect in breast cancer and head and neck cancers. The treated area receives repeated localized exposure over multiple sessions.

Industrial radiography accidents are another cause. Radiographers use gamma-emitting sources like cobalt-60 for nondestructive testing of structures and equipment. Overexposure during radiography work can cause severe radiation burns, especially on the hands.

Nuclear accidents can also lead to radiation burns. For example, 134 plant workers and emergency personnel developed radiation burns during the Chernobyl nuclear accident clean-up. The burns were caused by external gamma radiation from the damaged reactor.

Preventing Radiation Burns

There are safety measures that can prevent or reduce radiation burns:

  • Limiting radiation beam exposure time and using protective barriers like lead shields
  • Wearing proper safety gear like lead aprons and gloves
  • Maintaining safe distances from radioactive sources
  • Using monitoring badges to detect accidental overexposure

In cancer treatment, radiation doses are carefully planned and targeted to destroy tumors while sparing surrounding normal tissues. This helps prevent or minimize radiation burns to the skin and other organs.

Treating Radiation Burns

Treatment depends on the severity of radiation damage:

  • Mild burns can be left to heal on their own.
  • Moderate burns may require special dressings and antibiotic ointments.
  • Severe burns need debridement, skin grafts, and plastic surgery.

Treating radiation burns can be challenging because the radiation can damage the normal healing process. So wounds have to be closely monitored and frequently cleaned and redressed.

Long term effects like scarring, skin discoloration, hair loss, and nerve damage may remain even after burns heal. Cancer screening is recommended due to the risk of new cancers forming from radiation exposure.


In summary, radiation at very high doses can penetrate the skin and damage cells and tissue enough to cause burns. However, most everyday radiation exposures are at safe low doses that don’t cause burns. Following radiation safety guidelines helps prevent accidental overexposure. Radiation therapy procedures also aim to target tumors while sparing surrounding normal tissue. With proper precautions, radiation does not have to burn.