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What are Common Radiation Treatment Side Effects?

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  • Written By: Helena Reimer
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2016
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Radiation treatment side effects include fatigue, nausea, hair loss, a low blood count and skin irritations. The treatment itself is painless, but the damage done to the surrounding healthy cells can result in unpleasant side effects. Not all patients experience the same effects, and the severity of them also varies from patient to patient. The side effects can be grouped into two groups, known as acute radiation side effects and late radiation side effects.

Acute radiation side effects appear during the treatment stage and can last from several weeks to several months after the treatments are finished. Nausea is one of the radiation treatment side effects that does not affect all patients, but when it does kick in, it usually does so about two hours after the treatment. Fatigue is quite common among patients, and it also affects some people more than others. A low blood count, particularly of the white blood cells, can occur if the lymph nodes are damaged or if the bone marrow is exposed to radiation.

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Radiation treatment side effects can also affect the skin, resulting in red, moist and weeping skin as well as dry and scaly skin. The skin reactions generally occur in the treated area only and are worse in the areas where the skin naturally folds. Mucositis, which is an inflammation of the mucous membranes in the digestive tract, can occur if radiation comes in contact with any of the mucous membranes in the mouth, esophagus, bowel or rectum. Hair loss is another side effect that only occurs in the area where the radiation treatment was given.

Late radiation side effects include scarring and fibrosis, which can reduce the elasticity in the affected tissues. In rare cases, leukemia and other cancers might develop in the areas exposed to radiation. If the sweat glands become damaged, it can result in a reduced amount of sweating. Damaged tear glands can result in dry eyes, and damaged salivary glands can result in a dry mouth. Infertility can also occur if the sex glands are damaged from the radiation.

The severity of the radiation treatment side effects varies from person to person. Those in generally good health normally do not experience the side effects to the same degree as those in poor health. Certain medications, the location and the type of cancer as well as the amount of radiation that is given all play a significant role in the severity of the radiation treatment side effects.

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