Skin Reactions From Radiation

Last Modified: September 14, 2012

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Each time radiation therapy is delivered, small amounts are absorbed by the skin over the area being treated. About 2 to 3 weeks after your first radiation treatment, you may notice redness and irritation similar to a sunburn. These changes are an expected part of your therapy and are temporary. Your team will examine your skin periodically. In some cases, you may need to stop radiation treatments for a short period to allow the skin to heal. If the reaction becomes severe, you may need special care to help the area heal.

All patients receiving radiation therapy should take special measures to protect their skin from any additional damage, including:

Be extra kind to the skin in the area being treated.

  • Keep your skin clean and dry.
  • Wash skin in the treatment area with lukewarm water and a mild soap, such as Ivory® or Dove®. Avoid rubbing, especially with a washcloth.
  • Dry skin gently. Pat, don't rub, using a soft towel.
  • Do not use any lotions, ointments, perfumes, creams, or cosmetics unless told to by your radiation oncologist or nurse. If you are being treated under one or both arms, do not use any antiperspirant or deodorant prior to your treatment. Never use zinc oxide on skin during radiation therapy.
  • If your treatment is to your head, use a mild shampoo, such as baby shampoo, and try not to shampoo every day. In addition, do not use hot curlers or a curling iron, and be gentle when combing or brushing hair. For additional information on this subject, go to Hair Loss/Alopecia.
  • Use cornstarch on skin folds to prevent rubbing and chaffing.
  • Wear loose fitting clothes. Do not wear any restrictive garments, such as girdles.
  • Use gentle detergents, such as Woolite® or Ivory Snow®, to wash your clothes.
  • Do not starch your clothes.

Avoid anything that could cause injury to the skin in the area being treated.

  • Do not scratch your skin.
  • Avoid using adhesive tape. If bandaging is necessary, use paper tape. Try to apply the tape outside of the treatment area.
  • Use an electric razor if you must shave in the treatment area. Do not use a preshave lotion, aftershave or hair removal products.
  • Do not use heating pads, heat lamps or hot water bottles.
  • Do not use ice bags.
  • Practice sun safety as exposure to the sun as this can cause additional skin damage. Wear sunscreen with at least SPF of 15 every day. Wear protective clothing, including long sleeves and pants and a hat when outdoors. Avoid the sun during peak hours (10am to 2pm). Follow these tips in the winter months also!

Check the skin in the treatment area daily. Report any cuts, open areas or significant changes to your radiation oncologist or nurse.

How are skin reactions treated?

Minor skin reactions caused by radiation therapy do not require any special treatment. If, however, the skin reactions become worse or if you sustain additional damage to your skin, treatment may be necessary. Your radiation oncologist may decide to stop treatments for a period of time in order to allow the skin to heal. Your radiation team will tell you how to care for any skin reactions. Do not apply anything to the area without checking with your radiation team first.

If you have any questions about skin reactions, or need additional information and direction, ask your doctor or nurse.

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