There are several ways to define a dose of ionizing radiation, each appropriate for different purposes.
Absorbed dose resembles pharmacological dose the most closely. While pharmacological dose is the quantity of substance administered to a subject per unit weight or surface, radiological absorbed dose is the amount of energy transmitted by ionizing radiation per unit mass. Absorbed dose is measured in Grays (1 Gray = 1 joule/kg).
When individuals are exposed homogeneously—for example, by external irradiation by cosmic and terrestrial rays or by internal irradiation by potassium-40 present in the body—all organs and tissues receive the same dose. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate to speak of whole-body dose. It is, however, possible for exposure to be non-homogenous, in which case some organs and tissues will receive significantly higher doses than others. In this case, it is more relevant to think in terms of organ dose. For example, inhalation of radon daughters results in exposure of essentially only the lungs, and incorporation of radioactive iodine results in irradiation of the thyroid gland. In these cases, we may speak of lung dose and thyroid dose.
However, other units of dose that take into account differences in the effects of different types of radiation and the different radiation sensitivities of tissues and organs, have also been developed.
The development of biological effects (e.g., inhibition of cell growth, cell death, azoospermia) depends not only on the absorbed dose, but also on the specific type of radiation. Alpha radiation has a greater ionizing potential than beta or gamma radiation. Equivalent dose takes this difference into account by applying radiation-specific weighting factors. The weighting factor for gamma and beta radiation (low ionizing potential), is equal to 1, while that for alpha particles (high ionizing potential) is 20 (ICRP 60). Equivalent dose is measured in Sieverts (Sv).
In cases involving non-homogenous irradiation (e.g., the exposure of various organs to different radionuclides), it may be useful to calculate a global dose that integrates the doses received by all organs and tissues. This requires taking into account the radiation sensitivity of each tissue and organ, calculated from the results of epidemiological studies of radiation-induced cancers. Effective dose is measured in Sieverts (Sv) (ICRP 1991). Effective dose was developed for the purposes of radiation protection (i.e., risk management) and is thus inappropriate for use in epidemiological studies of the effects of ionizing radiation.
Collective dose reflects the exposure of a group or population and not of an individual, and is useful for evaluating the consequences of exposure to ionizing radiation at the population or group level. It is calculated by summing the individual received doses, or by multiplying the average individual dose by the number of exposed individuals in the groups or populations in question. Collective dose is measured in man-Sieverts (man Sv).