Radioactivity and Medicine

Contributor: Hannah Brooks. Lesson ID: 12495

How can something so potentially harmful as radiation be so potently helpful in medicine? Under strict control, radiation can reveal and repair illnesses like cancer while keeping patients safe!



learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Would you consider using an experimental medical treatment?

Experimental medical procedures can help patients who are facing rare or complicated illnesses.

They can also help doctors understand how the body responds to new types of treatments. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer patients were considered experimental before scientists understood how they worked to heal the body.

Before continuing, if you skipped or need to review the six previous Radioactivity Related Lessons, find them in the right-hand sidebar.

chemotherapy patient

Radioactivity has many applications in medicine, from diagnosis to treatment. Nuclear isotopes can be used to take images of the body, similar to x-rays. However, nuclear images can show both bone and soft tissue, enabling doctors to learn more about what is happening inside a patient's body.

internal scan

Doctors can also use radioactive trackers, given as small pills, inside the body to determine how materials are moving through the body systems. This can help identify blockages in the gastrointestinal tract and the blood vessels.

Once a patient has a diagnosis, radioactive isotopes can aid in treatment. Radiation is most commonly used to treat different types of cancer. Some examples include Iodine-131, used to treat thyroid cancer, and Iridium-192, for breast cancer. These treatments allow the radiation to target specific parts of the body while protecting the surrounding tissues and organs. The radiation is used to kill the cancer cells through nuclear exposure. You'll learn more about this in the Go! section of the lesson!


  • How can radiation damage the body?
  • Why do you think it is important to protect non-cancerous tissues from radiation exposure?

Exposure to radiation can cause the development of cancer, so it is important to protect the body from even limited exposure!

Another really important application of radioactivity in medicine involves the sterilization of materials used during medical procedures.

sterile syringes

Syringes and other tools used by doctors and medical professionals are sterilized with gamma rays, that kill any microbes living on the surface. Using sterile materials reduces the risk of infection for patients. Since gamma radiation doesn't involve heat or water, it can be used to sterilize bandages, surgical gloves, and even cotton gauze!

  • Have you ever wondered how they sterilized the cotton gauze at the pharmacy?

Well, it is exposed to radiation!


Radioactive elements have a wide range of uses in medicine. Technetium-99 is used to trace the pathway of materials in the body with very little risk to the patient because it passes straight through the body. Gamma radiation from various elements is used to treat cancer and stop tumor growth. Radiation is used to prepare materials for use during surgery. All of these applications would not be possible without individuals willing to try new experimental treatments for the first time.

Reflect back on the question, "Would you use an experimental medical treatment?"

  • Now that you have learned more about radioactivity in medicine, would you change your answer?

In the Got It? section, you will analyze how radioactive elements have been used in medicine over time.

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