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Radiation is something that is often misunderstood, both for its benefits and for its negative effects. The two basic effects of radiation are cell death and mutation, and the different types of radiation can cause either one or both.

The more powerful types of radiation are able to penetrate skin, and the deeper they go, the more problems they cause. Ionizing radiation has the ability to form ions within the body, which go on to form dangerous free radicals. This generally leads to widespread cell death. Nonionizing radiation can cause mutation if it comes in contact with DNA. This is the method by which radiation can cause cancer.

In the past, it was unclear whether one quick high dose of radiation was more harmful to humans than continuous exposure to lower doses. It has since been found that the latter is less harmful to the health of humans, which is very good news. The environment is a constant source of radiation, and everyone is constantly exposed to a marginal dose. The sun is a source of ultraviolet radiation, one of the better known types, as is the soil, which contains radioactive elements such as radon.

Although radiation is harmful in general, it can be helpful in treating certain cancers. Radiation causes the most damage in dividing cells, and because cancerous cells divide much more rapidly than normal cells, they are killed in higher proportion than normal cells when exposed to high dose radiation. Radiation therapy has now become a widely used method to treat many cancers.