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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Radiation Emergencies

For more information on radiation, go to the Radiation Dictionary.

Get Inside:

Stay Inside:

Stay Tuned:

Health Effects of Radiation Exposure:

Treatment for Radiation Exposure and Contamination

Radiation Injuries

Health Information for Specific Groups

Population Monitoring after a Radiation Emergency:

Radiation Emergencies:

Radiation Information:

 


Why should I get inside during a radiation emergency?

In a radiation emergency, such as a nuclear power plant accident, a nuclear detonation or the explosion of a dirty bomb you may be asked to get inside a building and take shelter for a period of time instead of leaving.  The walls of a building can block much of the harmful radiation.  Once inside, go to the basement or the middle of the building.  Radioactive material settles on the outside of buildings, so the best thing to do is stay as far away from the walls and roof of the building as you can. Because radioactive materials become weaker over time, staying inside for at least 24 hours can protect you and your family until it is safe to leave the area.

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How can I protect myself and family if there is a radiation emergency?

family illustraion graphicIn a radiation emergency, such as a nuclear power plant accident, a nuclear detonation or the explosion of a dirty bomb you may be asked to get inside a building and take shelter for a period of time instead of leaving.  The walls of a building can block much of the harmful radiation.  Because radioactive materials become weaker over time, staying inside for at least 24 hours can protect you and your family until it is safe to leave the area.  Remember: Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned.

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How can I help my children or other family members if they are not at home?

If you have loved ones in schools, day cares, hospitals, nursing homes, or other facilities during a radiation emergency, stay where you are! Going outside to get loved ones could expose you and them to dangerous levels of radiation.  Children and adults in schools, daycares, hospitals, nursing homes, or other places will be instructed to stay inside until emergency responders know that it is safe to evacuate. Facilities have plans in place to keep everyone safe inside.

If you are in the affected area of a radiation emergency, you can:

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What if I am in my car during a radiation emergency?

Get inside a building right away. Cars do not provide good protection from radioactive material. If you can get to a brick or concrete multi-story building or basement within a few minutes, go there. But being inside any building is safer than being outside.

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Will a mask protect me from radiation exposure and contamination?

If you are outside during a radiation emergency and cannot get inside immediately, covering your mouth and nose with a mask, cloth, or towel can help reduce the amount of radioactive material you breathe. If you can, you should also cover your mouth with a mask, cloth, or towel when you are decontaminating other people (such as children) or pets. 

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Why should I stay inside during a radiation emergency?

shelter in place graphicBecause radioactive materials become weaker over time, staying inside for at least 24 hours can protect you and your family until it is safe to leave the area. Always listen for additional instructions from emergency officials and radiation experts.

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What steps should I take to decontaminate myself and family?

Decontaminating yourself will lower your exposure to harmful radioactive material. Even just removing your outer layer of clothing can remove up to 90% of radioactive material.

  1. Take off your outer layer of clothing
  2. Wash yourself off
  3. Put on clean clothes

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What does it mean to shelter-in-place during a radiation emergency?

shelter in building graphic“Sheltering-in-place” means to get inside a building and stay there.  In a radiation emergency, such as a nuclear power plant accident, a nuclear detonation, or the explosion of a dirty bomb you may be asked to get inside a building and take shelter for a period of time instead of leaving.  The walls of a building can block much of the harmful radiation.  Because radioactive materials become weaker over time, staying inside for at least 24 hours can protect you and your family until it is safe to leave the area.

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If I was outside when a radiation emergency happened, what should I do to remove radioactive material from myself?

Radioactive material can fall from the air like dust or sand and land on objects below, like people, buildings, cars, and roads. Radioactive contamination can spread in the same way that dust or mud can be tracked into the home or spread to another person or object. It is important to get radioactive material off your body as soon as possible to lower your risk of harm. Even just removing your outer layer of clothing can remove up to 90% of radioactive material This is called decontamination.

  1. Take off your outer layer of clothing
  2. Wash yourself off
  3. Put on clean clothes

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Learn how to help others decontaminate

Learn how to decontaminate pets


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How can I keep my pets safe during a radiation emergency?

pet iconIf you are instructed to stay inside during a radiation emergency, pets should be inside too.

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How will I know if food or water is safe?

Following a radiation emergency, scientists will be testing drinking water supplies to make sure it is safe. Until those results are available, bottled water is the only water source that is certain to be free of contamination. You can use tap or well water for cleaning yourself and your food. The safest food to eat is food in sealed containers (cans, bottles, boxes, etc). Unspoiled food in your refrigerator or freezer is also safe to eat. For more information on food and water safety, please see the following topics in the Stay Inside section.

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Does boiling water get rid of radioactive material?

Boiling tap water does not get rid of radioactive materials. Until test results are available, bottled water is the only water that is free of contamination.

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How can I get information during a radiation emergency?

stay tuned graphicAs officials learn more about the emergency, they will be communicating the latest information to the public. Television, radio, and social media are some examples of ways that you may receive information. A battery-powered or hand crank emergency radio, preferably a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio is one of the best ways to stay tuned. Depending on the size and scope of the radiation emergency, it may be difficult to complete a phone call. Try to use text messages if possible. If you have a computer, or web-enabled device that is working, email, social media websites (like Facebook and Twitter) are other tools that emergency officials may use for updates.

CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response Facebook page and CDC Emergency Twitter feed

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What should I do if there are problems communicating with others during a radiation emergency?

Try to use text messages (SMS) to communicate with others. Making phone calls could be hard.

In the event of an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) Incident, an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP is possible. An EMP is a side effect of a nuclear detonation that produces a surge of energy. This surge can damage electronic devices. If your electronic devices with batteries are not working, you can try taking the batteries out of the device, putting them back in, and restarting the device as normal. Other devices may only require resetting switches and circuit breakers to work again. Do not go outside to reset breakers...

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How will I know when it is safe to leave my home or place of shelter?

Emergency officials will tell you if you need to leave your home (evacuate). Stay inside where you are until an evacuation order is given. Emergency officials will tell you when to go to an emergency shelter, where the shelter is located, and the safest route for travel. Act quickly and follow instructions. Each situation will be different and emergency officials will give you the best information to protect yourself and your loved ones.

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How do emergency officials determine when to evacuate an area?

Each situation will be different. Emergency officials consider many factors to make sure that it is safe to evacuate. Evacuation decisions will be based on wind speed and direction, the size and extent of the disaster, the radiation levels, and whether or not roads and structures are damaged.

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What are the immediate health effects of exposure to radiation?

The health effects of radiation depend on:

  • The amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose)
  • The type of radioactive material
  • How the radioactive material got in or on the body
  • The length of time a person was exposed
Exposure to large amounts of radiation over a short period of time can cause Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). If you have symptoms of ARS (skin burns, nausea, or vomiting) seek medical attention as soon as it is safe to leave your building or shelter. If you were exposed to a small amount of radiation, you will not see any health effects right away.

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What are the long term health effects of radiation exposure?

The long-term recovery process after a radiation emergency can lead to increased emotion and psychological distress. In addition, people who receive high doses of radiation could have a greater risk of developing cancer later in life, depending on the level of radiation exposure. For people who receive low doses of radiation, the risk of cancer from radiation exposure is so small that is cannot be separated from exposure to chemicals, genetics, smoking or diet. Health officials will monitor people affected by radiation emergencies for any long-term health effects.

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What is internal contamination with radioactive materials?

During a radiological or nuclear emergency, radioactive materials may be released into the air and then breathed into the lungs, or may get into the body through open wounds. Radioactive materials may also contaminate the local food supply and get into the body through eating or drinking. This is called internal contamination.

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What is external contamination with radioactive materials?

External contamination occurs when radioactive material comes into contact with a person’s skin, hair, or clothing. During a radiological or nuclear emergency, radioactive material can fall from the air like dust or sand and land on object below, like people, buildings, cars and roads. To protect yourself from external contamination, Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned.

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What are the symptoms of radiation sickness?

Symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), or radiation sickness, may include nausea, vomiting, headache and diarrhea. These symptoms start within minutes to days after the exposure, can last for minutes up to several days, and may come and go. If you have these symptoms after a radiation emergency, seek medical attention as soon as emergency officials say it is safe to do so.

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How is radiation sickness treated?

Treatment for radiation sickness, or Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) focuses on reducing and treating infections, maintaining hydration, and treating injuries and burns.  Some patients may benefit from treatments that help the bone marrow recover its function.

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What is the difference between radiation exposure and contamination?

If you have been exposed to radiation, you are not necessarily contaminated with radioactive material. Radioactive materials give off a form of energy that travels in waves or particles. When you are exposed to certain types of radiation, the energy may penetrate the body. For you to be contaminated, the radioactive material must be in or on your body. For example, if you have an x-ray, you are exposed to radiation, but you are not contaminated with radioactive material.

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Are there medicines available for radiation exposure or contamination with radioactive materials?

Some medical treatments are available for limiting or removing internal contamination depending on the type of radioactive material involved. Medical professionals will determine if treatments are needed.

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Should I take potassium iodide (KI) during a radiation emergency?

People should only take KI (potassium iodide) on the advice of public health or emergency management officials. There are health risks associated with taking KI.

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What should I do if I am injured during a radiation emergency?

Unless you have a life-threatening situation, you should not leave your building or place of shelter until emergency officials say it is safe to do so. Treat non-radiation related cuts, bruises, or injuries with first aid. Keep cuts and abrasions covered when washing to keep radioactive material out of the wound. The best way to prevent radiation injuries and illness is to get inside as soon as possible, away from radioactive material outside and shower or wash once inside.

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What should I do if I am pregnant?

If you are pregnant, it is especially important for you to follow protective action instructions and seek medical attention after a radiation emergency, as soon as it is safe to do so. If you are advised to visit a community reception center, you should let staff know about your pregnancy so you can receive proper attention. A developing fetus is highly susceptible to health effects from radiation exposure because of the rapid rate of cell division.

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What if I am nursing?

If possible, nursing mothers who were near the affected area should temporarily stop breastfeeding and switch to breast milk (that was pumped and stored before the exposure) or formula, until they can be seen by a doctor. Formula and feeding supplies should be cleaned with a damp cloth or clean towel. If no other source of food is available for your baby, continue to breastfeed.

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Are children at greater risk of being harmed from radiation exposure?

Children are more likely to develop health effects from radiation exposure. Younger people have more cells that are dividing rapidly and tissues that are growing, and they have a longer lifespan ahead of them, giving cancers time to develop. It is especially important for children to follow protective action instructions and to seek medical attention after a radiation emergency as soon as emergency officials say it is safe to do so.

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What happens during population monitoring?

Population monitoring begins after a radiation emergency and continues until all potentially affected people have been checked for radioactive contamination and evaluated for health effects from radiation exposure. Population monitoring includes long-term tracking and medical follow-up for people who were exposed to high levels of radiation or contaminated with radioactive material. Population monitoring could go on for many years after the emergency.

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How will I know if I have been exposed to or contaminated by radioactive materials?

Emergency officials will be working to determine who may have been exposed to radiation. The best way to limit your exposure is to get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned. If you were outdoors in an area when a radiation emergency happens, you could be contaminated with radioactive material. Decontaminating yourself will lower your exposure to harmful radioactive material

Depending on where you were during the radiation emergency, emergency officials may advise you to get screened at a Community Reception Center (CRC). At a CRC, emergency workers will use radiation detectors to look for any radioactive contamination.

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What is a Community Reception Center?

A Community Reception Center, or CRC, may be set up by emergency officials after a radiation emergency to screen people for radioactive contamination. If contamination is found, radiation and medical experts can provide advice and further information.

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What are the different types of radiation emergencies?

Radiation emergencies may be intentional (e.g., caused by terrorists) or unintentional. Below are some examples of different types of radiation emergencies.

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How should I prepare for a radiation emergency?

Your community should have a plan in place in case of a radiation emergency. Check with community leaders to learn more about the plan. Also, check with your child's school, the nursing home of a family member, and your employer to see what their plans are for dealing with a radiation emergency. At home, put together an emergency kit that would be appropriate for any emergency. A battery-powered or hand crank emergency radio, preferably a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio is important to have for any emergency situation.

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What should I have in my emergency preparedness kit for radiation emergencies?

A battery-powered or hand crank emergency radio, preferably a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio is important to have for any emergency situation. If your emergency radio uses batteries, keep extra batteries in your emergency preparedness kit. Bottled water and non-perishable foods are also important. CDC has a complete list of other items that are important to have in your family’s emergency preparedness kit.

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What is CDC's role during a radiation emergency?

Please see Emergency Preparedness and Response:What CDC is Doing for more information on CDC's role in National Preparedness and Response

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What is radiation?

radioactive symbolRadiation is a form of energy that is naturally present all around us. Different types of radiation exist, some of which have more energy than others. Radioactive material is a substance that gives off radiation.

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What are the different types of radiation?

Radiation comes in 2 forms—ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation has less energy than ionizing radiation. Its uses include lasers, microwaves, infrared lamps, and radio waves. The most energetic form of radiation is ionizing radiation which can be used to generate electric power, treat cancer, take x-rays and disinfect medical instruments.

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What impact does radiation have on our lives on a daily basis?

radiation exposure imageWe are exposed to radiation every day, both from naturally occurring sources (such as elements in the soil or cosmic rays from the sun), and man-made sources. Man-made sources of radiation exposure include some electronic equipment (such as older television sets), medical sources (such as x-rays, certain diagnostic tests, and treatments), and from nuclear weapons testing that took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

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What resources are available for training?

CDC has developed resources to help response agencies prepare for and respond to a radiation emergency.

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