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Side Effects

Skin Changes and Care During Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can cause skin changes in your treatment area. The most common are listed below. Remember, however, that reactions will vary in type and severity from one individual to another. Some people will have no reactions at all.

Redness (called erythema): The skin in the treatment may look as if you have a mild to severe sunburn. This can occur on any part of your body where you are getting radiation.

Pruritus: The skin in the treated area may itch.

Dry and peeling skin: Radiation can cause your skin to be drier than usual. This may cause your skin to flake and peel, similar to sunburn.

Moist reaction: Radiation can cause peeling of the outer layer of the skin, in some cases leaving a moist, tender area exposed. This can also happen up to a week or two after treatment is completed.

Skin changes may start after a few weeks of radiation therapy. Many of the reactions often go away a couple of weeks after treatment has ended. It is important to be proactive with your skin care. Begin using Natural Care® gel after your first treatment, and continue to use it until your skin returns to normal. During treatment other recommendations for skin care may occur.

The effects of radiation on your skin depend on many factors such as nutritional status, medications and chemotherapy agents. Your doctor should be able to tell you if you can expect a significant reaction. Not everyone reacts the same, and some patients may experience less or more of a reaction than expected.

Be aware that for many years after treatment, if you go outdoors in the sun with the treated area unprotected, the skin reaction may show up again, and the area will be more sensitive to sun damage. Please be sure to apply sunscreen to the treatment area if you plan to be out in the sun.

Tips for Skin Care During Treatment

Take extra-good care of your skin right from the beginning of your radiation therapy. Be gentle, and do not rub, scrub or scratch the treatment area.

Use soaps and other cleansing products that are natural, chemical-free and formulated for sensitive or dry skin. Use baby soap and brands such as Dove®, Ivory®, Neutrogena®, or Basis®. Perfumes and products like fragranced lotions contain alcohol, which can be drying and should be avoided during radiation treatments. Do not use any lotion on the area being treated for at least four hours prior to your treatment time.

If you shave the treated area, use only an electric razor to reduce the risk of cuts and chafing of the skin. Do not use a pre- or after-shave lotion.

When treating the breast area, it is recommended that you should not wear a bra during the entire course of treatment. Tight fitting garments can cause irritation and skin breakdown in skin folds (i.e., the breast and underarms).

If you are experiencing significant skin problems, check with your doctor or nurse if you want to go swimming.

You should avoid all extreme temperatures to the treatment area – no heating pads or ice packs.

Be extra careful about sun exposure. The skin in the treatment area will be more sensitive to the sun.

Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher whenever you are outside for an extended period.

When you begin treatment, you will receive a tube of Miaderm® cream to apply to the treatment area.

(Miaderm® is also available for purchase at Wellspring, 525 Amherst Street in Winchester.) We ask that you apply this cream three times a day to the area being treated. Do not apply the cream for four hours prior to your treatment. We can provide an additional lotion if you experience skin pain or discomfort at the treatment site. Please be advised that this cream is not necessary for all treatment areas.

For Pruritus (Itching) and Rash in the Treated Area

  • You may use hydrocortisone cream 1%, which is sold over the counter. Follow the directions on the label for use.
  • Keep rooms cool and well ventilated.
  • Add a few drops of baby oil or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to your bath if you bathe rather than shower.
  • You may use Benadryl® orally, which can be helpful at night. It can make you drowsy, so use it with care during the day.

Sitz Baths

If your rectal, perineal or groin areas are being treated, you should start taking Sitz baths as soon as you start treatment, rather than scrubbing the areas. Do this for 10 to 15 minutes, four times a day and/or after each bowel movement. A Sitz bath is available at pharmacies and drug stores. You may also use a squirt bottle for cleansing the perineal area after urination or a bowel movement.

Other Side Effects

Your radiation oncologist and one of the radiation oncology nurses will see you once a week while you are receiving radiation therapy. They can help with any side effects that you experience and may be able to recommend more options that are not addressed here. Please let the radiation therapist know at any time if you have a problem so the nurse can be notified and meet with you to address the issue.

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