the nucleus of a helium atom, made up of two neutrons and two protons with a charge of +2. Certain radioactive nuclei emit alpha particles. Alpha particles generally carry more energy than gamma or beta particles, and deposit that energy very quickly while passing through tissue. Alpha particles can be stopped by a thin layer of light material, such as a sheet of paper, and cannot penetrate the outer, dead layer of skin. Therefore, they do not damage living tissue when outside the body. When alpha-emitting atoms are inhaled or swallowed, however, they are especially damaging because they transfer relatively large amounts of ionizing energy to living cells. See also beta particle, gamma ray, neutron, x-ray.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)