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Tips for Side Effects

Skin Changes During Radiation Treatment

Will My Skin Be Affected by Radiation Treatment?

If you’re undergoing radiation treatment and notice changes in your skin, don’t panic. About 85-95% of the population undergoing radiation experience some type of change.

While your skin may not be the intended focus of the radiation treatment, radiation has a destructive effect on normal tissue surrounding the treatment area. These changes are often referred to as radiation dermatitis, which means inflammation of the skin, or radiation burn. The word “burn” may sound scary, but it’s often referred to this way because skin changes can resemble a sunburn.

The specific skin changes that may occur will be based on your type of radiation treatment and the part of your body being treated.

The degree of skin changes and potential damage can also vary due to factors such as:

  • The dose and length of time radiation is being administered

  • Location of the radiation treatment

  • Different skin types

  • Age of the patient

  • Pre-existing skin conditions

  • Concurrent chemotherapy treatments


When Changes Commonly Occur

While everyone’s experience may differ, most people receiving radiation therapy can expect to see skin changes within 7-14 days. It is, however, possible for patients to see changes to the skin weeks after treatment has ended.

Changes You Might Experience Near Your Radiation Site

  • Itching, tingling, redness, dryness, or irritation to the skin

  • A sensation of the skin feeling “tight”

  • Localized swelling

  • Hair loss and changes to the pores

  • Blisters or ulcers

  • Changes to the skin color (pigmentation)

  • Localized discomfort

It’s important to note that changes to the skin in most cases are temporary but can be permanent.

Top Tips for Managing Skin Changes

  • Wash your skin with cool water and mild, unscented soaps. Do not use abrasive washcloths or sponges on the area. Gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel.

  • Use unscented moisturizers on the affected skin. Confirm with your radiation oncologist if this is appropriate, especially if other topical ointments are prescribed.

  • Try to reduce your sun exposure and use sunblock with SPF 50 or more.

  • Wear loose clothing. You’ll want to avoid friction on the skin.

  • When receiving radiation to the breast, wear bras with no underwire.

  • Use a gentle detergent for washing your clothes.

  • Maximize your fluid and food consumption. Diets high in protein will help aid in healing.


What to Avoid During Radiation Treatment

  • Use of razors (If shaving is needed, try using an electric razor to reduce skin harm.)

  • Heating/cold pads

  • Wearing make-up, scented lotions, or perfumes

  • Hot tubs and swimming in pools/oceans/lakes

  • Wearing tight-fitting or underwire bras when receiving breast radiation (Whenever possible avoid wearing a bra altogether.)


When to Contact Your Radiation Oncologist

It’s important to monitor yourself for any signs and symptoms of infection. If you notice any fever, bleeding, or discharge from your skin, contact your oncology team for guidance. Medicated ointments or oral medications can be prescribed to help with healing. For patients who suffer from chronic radiation effects, a referral for oxygen therapy (Hyperbaric oxygen therapy) may be appropriate.

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.