Answer to Question #7799 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Nuclear Power, Devices, and Accidents — Nuclear Accidents

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:


As radiation and radioactivity become a growing concern, what can be done to counter the effects of radiation poison and residual nuclear radiation? (Please include anything, no matter how minuscule.) I have heard of pills that help prevent or weaken the effects of radiation. How do these work?


There is no magic pill that offers immunity against radiation or makes a person more resistant to the effects of radiation. There are, however, a number of medications with very specific applications that may be useful in treating people who have been irradiated or have radioactive contamination inside their bodies. For example:

  • There is a class of drugs called "colony stimulating factors" that help in recovery from radiation sickness. This class of drugs works by stimulating stem cells in the bone marrow to make more blood cells. These patients may also need antibiotics and electrolytes and should be treated under supervision of competent medical authority.
  • There is a pill called potassium iodide (KI) that can help protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine. This drug works by saturating the thyroid gland with normal stable iodine, which the thyroid needs for its proper functioning. When the thyroid is fully saturated, it will not absorb any radioactive iodine that may be circulating in the blood. KI needs to be taken up to 24 hours before or a few hours after exposure to be effective.
  • There are also various drugs that can help excrete radioactive materials from the body. These drugs are usually very specific and only work for one or two types of radioactive materials. For example, the drug Prussian blue (PB), which is a capsule, works to eliminate radioactive cesium from the body by trapping it in the gut and excreting it through feces. The drug diethylentriamene pentaacetate (DTPA), which is an injection, works by latching on to radioactive plutonium or americium molecules and excreting them in urine. This process is called chelation and the drugs are called chelators. The idea is that the faster these radioactive materials are excreted from the body, the less radiation dose they deliver to the body.

The drugs I mentioned are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and you can find additional detailed information about them at this FDA Web site. More general fact sheets about these FDA-approved drugs are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are also a number of other countermeasures which are not FDA-approved, but you can see their listing at the Radiation Event Medical Management (REMM) Web site. 

While reading this material, you should note that:

  1. All these drugs are helpful only in certain specific situations. None of them offers general protection against radiation.
  2. These drugs do not eliminate or reverse any damage already done by a high dose of radiation, nor can they immediately or completely cleanse the body of contamination that is inside the body.
  3. If you think you may have some residual contamination on your self, the best thing to do is to carefully remove your clothing (be careful not to breathe in the dust), bag the clothes, and take a shower, rinsing your hair and gently washing your body with mild soap and water. This will minimize the chances of getting that radioactive material inside your body by breathing or swallowing it. If no shower or water is available, using moist wipes to clean your hands and face will be effective too.

And remember: "It is the dose that makes a poison." If an individual is irradiated with a small dose of radiation or small amounts of radioactive materials are inhaled or ingested, that does not necessarily mean that the individual will experience health problems or that he/she requires medical intervention.

The best approach in a radiation emergency is to take steps to reduce your level of exposure to radiation or chances of becoming contaminated in the first place. You can do this by listening to public announcements from emergency response and public health authorities (through radio and television) and following their instructions.

Armin Ansari, PhD, CHP

Ask the Experts is posting answers using only SI (the International System of Units) in accordance with international practice. To convert these to traditional units we have prepared a conversion table. You can also view a diagram to help put the radiation information presented in this question and answer in perspective. Explanations of radiation terms can be found here.
Answer posted on 22 September 2008. The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.