Living with cancer blog

How to care for skin during and after radiation

By Sheryl M. Ness, R.N. November 9, 2013

Taking care of your skin during and after radiation treatment is important. Skin changes can be one of the primary side effects of radiation therapy. While the goal of radiation is to target the cancer cells of a tumor, the healthy cells in and around the area can also be affected.

Skin changes that can occur during or shortly after radiation treatment include:

  • dryness,
  • itching,
  • swelling,
  • peeling,
  • redness and/or blistering, almost a sunburn effect.

Skin changes due to radiation can differ depending on the location where the radiation is given. For example, people who have radiation due to head and neck cancer may have changes in the area of the mouth and neck (dry mouth and sore throat).

Most side effects from radiation therapy are limited to the area being treated and go away within weeks after the treatment is finished. However, some people may experience long-term skin changes in the area that was treated, including scar tissue formation (fibrosis), long-term hair loss and skin discoloration.

Here are a few things to remember while caring for your skin during radiation treatment:

  • Use mild soap and water to clean the area being treated (do not use deodorants that contain aluminum).
  • Your doctor may have prescribed steroid creams to prevent itching, redness and swelling — pay close attention to the instructions (usually best to apply 4 hours prior to treatment).
  • Be gentle with your skin by using a soft washcloth while showering or bathing — do not use loofah, scrubs brushes or sponges. Pat dry, instead of rubbing.
  • Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing to reduce skin irritation.
  • Protect your skin from the sun — wear clothing and hat to cover up and stay in the shade.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures — take short, lukewarm or cool baths and showers.
  • Use moisturizer that is mild and without fragrances — Eucerin, Vanicream and Cetaphil are a few examples.
  • To help with side effects of throat irritation and dry mouth, ask about lozenges and gels that can help moisturize and replace saliva. SalivaSure, Numoisyn, Biotene, Aquoral are a few products you may find helpful.

It's important to report any major symptoms to your doctor. These may include signs of infection, fever, severe pain, swelling, blistering and redness.

Studies have shown that preventing serious skin reactions can prevent long-term effects such as fibrosis. If you have extensive skin changes, you may want to consult with a physical therapist specializing in rehabilitation and/or a dermatologist experienced in treating cancer survivors.

Please share your experiences related to skin care and radiation. What has helped you?


Sheryl M. Ness, R.N.

Nov. 09, 2013