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If you notice changes to your skin during or after radiation therapy, you are not alone. One common side effect of radiation therapy is skin irritation, such as redness or sensitivity, in the treated area. Your skin may also become dry, itchy or moist. These and other changes can be uncomfortable and upsetting.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy radiation or radioactive substances to shrink or kill cancerous cells. Radiation therapy may come from a machine outside the body via radiation beams or x-rays (external radiation), or from radioactive material placed directly into or near a tumor inside the body (internal radiation).
When radiation passes through the skin, the skin cells in the treatment area become damaged. If you receive frequent radiation, your skin cells often do not have enough time to repair and regenerate in between treatments. Radiation therapy may cause the exposed skin to peel off faster than it can grow back, causing sores or ulcers to develop.
Radiation-induced skin reactions may progress from erythema (redness), to desquamation (shedding of outer skin layers), and sometimes to ulceration. During the first week or two of radiation treatment, you may notice a faint redness and your skin may become itchy or tender. After three to four weeks, your skin may become dry and peel, or you may notice moist areas. Later effects of radiation may include darkening or thinning of the skin.
The following are some common reactions that can occur on radiated skin:
Radiation-induced skin reactions vary, depending on the treatment type and length, radiation dosage, the area being treated, skin type, and other factors.
For instance, skin irritation is more likely to occur in areas where the skin is thin and smooth (e.g., face, neck) or where you have body folds (e.g., breast, buttocks, abdomen, armpit, groin). In addition, skin reactions tend to occur more often if you have received a high dose of radiation, a single radiation beam, or chemotherapy shortly before or during radiation therapy.
The following are some additional risk factors for radiation-induced skin reactions:
Skin changes may become more noticeable as the course of radiation therapy progresses. Acute radiation side effects occur one to four weeks after beginning treatment and may persist for several weeks following treatment. Late radiation side effects occur six or more months after treatment is complete.
Fortunately, most skin reactions are temporary and will usually go away a few weeks of completing radiation therapy. In some cases, though, the irradiated skin will be slightly darker, thinner, or dryer than it was before. Also, your skin may burn more easily from sun exposure, and may be prone to infection and breakdown.
There are several innovative radiation techniques being offered today that may help to reduce damage to skin tissue. There are also many comfort measures and medications available to relieve skin irritation caused by radiation therapy.
Your doctor may prescribe topical drugs in the form of therapeutic creams or ointments. You may also receive antibiotics to fight infection or pain medications to relieve discomfort. For severe skin reactions, such as a redness that evolves into blistering, moist weeping, or infection, your doctor may discontinue treatment for a period of time to allow the skin to heal.
In addition to the help your doctor provides, the more you know about taking care of your skin during radiation therapy, the better able you will be to relieve discomfort, lessen further irritation, and speed healing.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS REPORT ANY RADIATION-INDUCED SKIN REACTIONS TO YOUR PHYSICIAN IMMEDIATELY.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING CHANGES TO THE SKIN DURING AND AFTER RADIATION THERAPY.
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