What Is Involved in Radiation Burn Treatment?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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Radiation burn treatment can be a complex process, depending on the extent of the burn, but starts with stabilizing the patient so she has a better chance of surviving the treatment process. There are a number of forms of radiation burns, including burns from cancer therapy, working with radioactive material, prolonged sun exposure, and exposure to the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Care providers preparing to give radiation burn treatment in an emergency situation must also consider the fact that there may be multiple victims who will need a high level care.

With an acute radiation burn, the first step in treatment is the same as it is in any medical emergency: to secure the patient's airway, breathing, and circulation. These three components of care are known as the ABCs. Problems with any one of them can be fatal. With radiation burns, care providers need to think about issues like swelling caused by thermal injuries that might block the airway and make it difficult to breathe.


If the patient appears stable, a care provider can apply a clean, dry bandage to the burn to minimize pain while the patient receives transport. Patients in extreme pain may also receive pain management like morphine. In a hospital setting, personnel can inspect the burn and clean it. For radiation burn treatment with superficial injuries, it may be possible to simply wash the wound and keep it clean during the healing process. When the patient was exposed to ionizing radiation, an ongoing necrotic process may have developed, where cells around the edge of the burn keep dying off as a result of damage.

In very deep burns or cases of spreading necrosis, the patient will need surgical debridement as part of radiation burn treatment. In this procedure, a surgeon works on an anesthetized patient to remove all the damaged and dead tissue. Surgeons may follow various treatment guidelines for this process. The patient may also need skin grafts from other areas of the body or donor tissue to replace skin damaged irreparably by radiation.

Burn victims with extensive injuries tend to have difficulty with thermoregulation and fluid retention. For these patients, radiation burn treatment may include the administration of intravenous fluids to keep the patient hydrated. Care providers have to monitor the patient for swelling, however, as the patient cannot eliminate fluids easily and could become overloaded. The patient may also need to be in a climate-controlled room to keep his core body temperature stable. When the skin is badly damaged, it cannot control temperature as effectively, and patients may overheat or develop hypothermia.


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