Ionizing radiation interacts with the immune system in many ways with a multiplicity that mirrors the complexity of the immune system itself: namely the need to maintain a delicate balance between different compartments, cells and soluble factors that work collectively to protect, maintain, and restore tissue function in the face of severe challenges including radiation damage. The cytotoxic effects of high dose radiation are less relevant after low dose exposure, where subtle quantitative and functional effects predominate that may go unnoticed until late after exposure or after a second challenge reveals or exacerbates the effects. For example, low doses may permanently alter immune fitness and therefore accelerate immune senescence and pave the way for a wide spectrum of possible pathophysiological events, including early-onset of age-related degenerative disorders and cancer. By contrast, the so called low dose radiation therapy displays beneficial, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties in chronic inflammatory and degenerative diseases. In this review, epidemiological, clinical and experimental data regarding the effects of low-dose radiation on the homeostasis and functional integrity of immune cells will be discussed, as will be the role of immune-mediated mechanisms in the systemic manifestation of localized exposures such as inflammatory reactions. The central conclusion is that ionizing radiation fundamentally and durably reshapes the immune system. Further, the importance of discovery of immunological pathways for modifying radiation resilience amongst other research directions in this field is implied.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106212
Number of pages22
JournalEnvironmental International
Early online date5 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2021


  • DNA damage response
  • Epidemiological data
  • Immune system
  • Inflammation
  • Low-dose ionizing radiation
  • Immune System
  • Humans
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Neoplasms
  • Radiation, Ionizing


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