Radiation Burn: What to Know

A radiation “burn” or rash is a common side effect of radiation therapy for cancer. It is also called radiation dermatitis. There is no clear way to prevent it from happening. But there is a lot you can do to take care of your skin if you have one. Here’s what you need to know.

Symptoms

At first, your skin may look:

  • red
  • Irritated
  • Inflated
  • Sunburn
  • Bronze

After a few weeks, the skin may:

A radiation burn can range from mild to severe. It depends on things like what part of your body was treated, how much radiation you received, and for how long. You may be more likely to have a radiation burn if you are also having chemotherapy.

Symptoms tend to go away slowly after treatment is finished. In some people, the treated skin may stay darker and feel more sensitive.

Treatment

Tell your doctor immediately if you have symptoms of radiation burns or other skin changes. They will tell you how to keep the irritation from getting worse and how to avoid infection.

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There is no standard treatment for radiation burns. Your doctor may recommend emollient moisturizers or prescribe steroids that you apply to your skin. Do not use any over-the-counter skin products without first talking to your doctor. They need to make sure it doesn’t irritate the skin or affect your radiation therapy.

Usually call the doctor if your treated skin:

  • Gets worse
  • Itching for 2 or more days
  • Bleeding
  • Causes pain or discomfort that prevents you from sleeping
  • Blisters, turns bright red or becomes crisp
  • Leaking pus or smelly liquid

Self-care tips

It is important to take care of your skin while it heals. Some things you can do are:

Wear loose clothing made of a soft, smooth material. Avoid wearing tight or stiff clothing with rough textures on the treated skin. Don’t change your clothes either.

Don’t scratch, rub, or rub. If your doctor tells you to cover or bandage the treated skin, use duct tape designed for sensitive skin, such as paper tape.

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Avoid ice packs or heating pads. Do not use them unless your doctor tells you that you are okay. These can make your skin worse.

Protect your skin from the sun. It may be more sensitive to sunlight. If you can, cover the treated area with dark-colored clothing or built-in UV protection. Also ask your doctor or nurse if you need to apply sunscreen to the treated skin. If they give you the correct one, use a broad spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30. Continue to protect your skin from the sun even after you finish the treatment.

Use lukewarm water and mild soap when washing. Hot water can hurt. Let the water run over your treated skin and do not rub it. It is extremely important not to erase the ink marks that your healthcare team uses for your radiation therapy until after treatment is complete.

Talk to your doctor before shaving. If you have received treatment on a part of the hairy skin that you want to shave, the doctor may recommend that you use an electric razor. It can be safer and smoother than a razor blade.

Do not use skin care products on the treated area. They can disturb your skin. And some could affect the amount of radiation your body absorbs. During radiation therapy and for several weeks after, talk to your doctor before using:

  • Powders
  • Creams
  • Perfumes
  • Deodorants
  • Body oils
  • Ointments
  • Lotions
  • Hair removal products
  • Home remedies

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