External Radiation Therapy Side Effects: Managing Skin Problems

7 Tips for Managing Skin Irritation During Cancer Treatment

Itchy skin.
GARO/PHANIE/Getty

Many people who undergo external radiation therapy develop skin problems that may continue long after their treatment has ended. External radiation therapyor external beam radiation, is done during outpatient visits to a hospital or treatment center and uses a machine that directs high-energy rays from outside the body into the tumor.  

What is External Radiation Therapy?

For most people, the period of external radiation therapy treatment spans over many weeks.

 The radiation dosage and the number of treatments are based on a few different factors:

  • The type of cancer
  • The size of the cancer
  • The location of the cancer
  • Your general health
  • Any other treatments you may be undergoing

In addition to killing cancer cells, radiation therapy can also damage healthy body tissue around the area being treated, which is why you will need to take special care to protect yourself from the potential side effects. Before treatment, be sure to speak to your medical team about any additional side effects you may come to expect and follow their advice for managing those side effects.

Commonly reported side effects of external radiation therapy include fatigue, hair loss in the treatment area, low blood count, eating problems and skin problems.

Spotlight on a Common Side Effect: Skin Problems

Skin problems are a common side effect of external radiation therapy. The types of skin problems that occur as a result of radiation therapy include:

  • itchiness
  • redness or sunburn-like appearance
  • dryness
  • general irritation
  • skin may appear tan

These side effects occur in the area being exposed to radiation. People may also lose hair in the area being treated.

7 Tips for Managing Skin Irritation During Radiation Therapy

Taking special care of the skin in the specific treatment area is very important in managing skin problems during radiation therapy.

You may find the following tips helpful in reducing skin irritation:

  • 1. Do not apply any cream two hours before or immediately after therapy unless directed by a doctor as some skin cream products may change the radiation dosage that enters the body.
  • 2. Use only lukewarm water cleanse the area during bathing. Do not put heating pads, heat lamps, or ice packs on the treatment area since even hot water may hurt your skin.
  • 3. Do not use scented soaps, perfumes, lotions, deodorants, cosmetics or creams on the treated area unless directed by your doctor.
  • 4. Do not wear tight fitting clothing around the treatment area. It may rub against the area causing irritation.
  • 5. Avoid exposing the treated area to the sun or use tanning salons—even well after radiation therapy has ended.
  • 6. Avoid scratching the skin even if itchy.
  • 7. Report any skin problems to your doctor. Your doctor may be able to prescribe an ointment or cream to reduce discomfort.

Even though most skin reactions go away overtime after radiation therapy treatment has ended, there are some cases where the treated skin will stay darker or be more sensitive than it was before treatment.

Ask your medical team if you should be protecting your skin with sunscreen at any point and take extra care to be gentle with your skin.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. External Radiation Therapy. Accessed Feb 10th, 2016.

American Cancer Society. Common Side Effects of Radiation Therapy. Accessed Feb 10th, 2016.

Continue Reading