A radiation burn is a damage to the skin or other biological tissue and organs as an effect of radiation. The radiation types of greatest concern are thermal radiation, radio frequency energy, ultraviolet light and ionizing radiation.
The most common type of radiation burn is a sunburn caused by UV radiation. High exposure to X-rays during diagnostic medical imaging or radiotherapy can also result in radiation burns. As the ionizing radiation interacts with cells within the body—damaging them—the body responds to this damage, typically resulting in erythema—that is, redness around the damaged area. Radiation burns are often discussed in the same context as radiation-induced cancer due to the ability of ionizing radiation to interact with and damage DNA, occasionally inducing a cell to become cancerous. Cavity magnetrons can be improperly used to create surface and internal burning. Depending on the photon energy, gamma radiation can cause very deep gamma burns, with 60Co internal burns common. Beta burns tend to be shallow as beta particles are not able to penetrate deeply into the person; these burns can be similar to sunburn. Alpha particles can cause internal alpha burns if inhaled, with external damage (if any) being limited to minor erythema.
Radiation burns can also occur with high power radio transmitters at any frequency where the body absorbs radio frequency energy and converts it to heat. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers 50 watts to be the lowest power above which radio stations must evaluate emission safety. Frequencies considered especially dangerous occur where the human body can become resonant, at 35 MHz, 70 MHz, 80-100 MHz, 400 MHz, and 1 GHz. Exposure to microwaves of too high intensity can cause microwave burns.
Microwave radiation burns may also be caused by ionization similar to the way sunburns are caused by UV radiation. While the telecom industry relies heavily on the non-ionizing classification of microwave radiation to protect their claim that there is no harm done until the microwaves cause heating, that classification is based on the energy level of a photon. What more accurately sometimes happens with polarized, high power density fields and beams, is multi-photon ionization. Electrons may be excited by other sources of radiation in the environment. Microwave multi-photon ionization of hydrogen can occur even when the microwaves are relatively weak as multi-photon ionizations are much more efficient than ionization by a single photon of higher energy. This is observed in trees and shrubbery with sections in the path of microwave broadcasts that turn brown (experience cellular damage). This is also observed as oxidation of metal building materials that show oxidation on areas only in the path. Telecom workers have also reported skin turning red as if sunburned.