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What are the Effects of Radiation Therapy on Skin?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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The effects of radiation therapy on skin can vary among individuals, but typically include redness akin to sunburn, dry patches, and itchiness as well as skin sores or rawness. In some cases, individuals receiving radiation therapy also experience skin swelling and tenderness. As a general rule, the effects are temporary in nature and will disappear soon after radiation therapy is discontinued. As dermatological side effects of radiation therapy can cause considerable discomfort, individuals who are receiving this type of treatment should ask medical professionals for information on appropriate skin care during therapy.

Radiation therapy is a common way of treating cancer during which the skin of the treated area may develop a reaction to the radiation. For many people, this means that the skin can develop an inflamed rash similar to that caused by excessive sun exposure. This can result in a burning sensation, tenderness, as well as the appearance of sunburn. In some cases, the skin can develop additional symptoms similar to that of sunburn, including itchiness, dryness, and peeling. On the other hand, because radiation therapy kills skin cells, it can take a while for the skin to regenerate itself, resulting in raw, moist patches of skin that may even develop into skin ulcers.

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Although these effects of radiation therapy on skin are often temporary, poor care of the skin during radiation treatment can contribute to other skin problems. For example, if an individual exposes skin that has already been irritated by radiation therapy to the sun, serious sunburn can result. In addition, irritated skin may itch so badly that patients may end up scratching the skin such that it breaks or even becomes infected. It is also possible for a radiation patient to further irritate skin through the application of ointments, creams, or other skin treatments.

Individuals who are undergoing radiation therapy should ask their doctor or nurse about how to manage the consequences of radiation therapy on skin. They may be advised as to specific cleansing and moisturizing products that can be safely used on radiation–irritated skin. As the effects of radiation therapy on skin cause skin irritation, patients should seek advice on managing itchiness or easily irritated skin through the use of appropriate dressings or medicinal ointments. Patients should also take care to cover their skin in soft, natural, non-irritating clothing fibers such as cotton.

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