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Potassium Iodide for Radiation Emergencies

How Does Potassium Iodide Work In Radiation Exposure?

Potassium iodide helps protect the thyroid gland from being harmed and reduces the risk of thyroid cancer by blocking the absorption of the radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland. Basically, potassium iodide does this by being absorbed and "filling up" the thyroid gland with nonradioactive iodine, leaving no more room for radioactive iodine to be absorbed, which results in it being eliminated by the body through the urine. When the thyroid gland is full, it cannot absorb any more iodine for the next 24 hours.
It is important to know that nonradioactive iodine and radioactive iodine look the same to the thyroid gland, so it will absorb both equally.
How much radioactive iodine is blocked by potassium iodide relies on multiple factors, including:
  • The time lapse between contamination and taking potassium iodide (the sooner you take it, the better)
  • How quickly the potassium iodide gets into your blood
  • The amount of radioactive iodine you were exposed to.
In addition, potassium iodide works best if taken within three to four hours of exposure.
It is also important to be aware of what potassium iodide cannot do for you. For example, potassium iodide cannot:
  • Stop radioactive iodine from getting into your body
  • Protect the rest of your body from radioactive iodine
  • Reverse the resulting health effects from radioactive iodine once the thyroid has been injured
  • Protect you from other radioactive elements.

When to Take Potassium Iodide

Only after advice from emergency management officials, public health officials, or your healthcare provider should you consider taking potassium iodide. The public will be notified as to what actions or precautions should be taken after a radiologic or nuclear incident.
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