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What to Expect From Radiation Therapy

What Kind of Skin Problems Can Radiation Therapy Cause?

The effect external radiation therapy has on your skin is similar to the effect that exposure to the sun can have. You can expect to see some changes in coloration. The skin may look red, sunburned, or tanned. It may also appear swollen or blistered. Your skin may also become dry, flaky, or itchy. Or it may start to peel.

The key to dealing with skin irritations is to be gentle with your skin:

  • Don't wear tight clothing over the area that's being treated.
  • Don't scrub or rub your skin. To clean it, use a mild soap and let lukewarm water run over it.
  • Avoid putting anything hot or cold on the treated area unless the doctor tells you to do so.
  • Ask your doctor before using any type of ointment, oil, lotion, or powder on the skin.
  • Check with your doctor about using corn starch to help relieve itching.
  • Stay out of the sun as much as possible. Protect the treated area by wearing a hat and long-sleeved shirt. Ask the doctor about using sunscreen if you must be out in the sun.
  • If radiation therapy is being used to treat breast cancer, try not to wear a bra. If that isn't possible, wear a soft, cotton bra without underwire.
  • Don't use any tape, gauze, or bandages on your skin unless the doctor tells you to.

Your skin irritation should improve starting a few weeks after therapy ends. But when it heals, your skin in the treated area may be a darker color. And you will still need to protect your skin from exposure to the sun for up to a year after radiation therapy.

Will Radiation Therapy Cause My Hair to Fall Out?

Only patients who get radiation to the scalp or the brain may have hair loss. Others won't. If you do have hair loss, it will usually occur suddenly and come out in clumps. In most cases, the hair will grow back after therapy stops, but it may be thinner or have a different texture.

One way to minimize hair loss is to cut your hair short before treatment begins to make less weight on the hair shaft. If the hair loss occurs on top of your head, be sure to wear a hat or a scarf to protect your scalp from the sun when you go outside. If you decide to purchase a wig, ask the doctor to write a prescription for one and check to see if it's covered by your insurance or is a tax-deductible expense.

What Are Other Possible Early Side Effects From Radiation Therapy?

Other early side effects are usually specific to the site that receives the radiation.

Eating Problems

Radiation therapy to the head, neck, or parts of the digestive system can result in loss of interest in eating. But it's important to continue to eat a healthy diet while undergoing treatment in order to maintain your health and keep up your strength.

  • Eating five or six small meals spread out through the day often works better than trying to eat three larger meals.
  • Trying new recipes can help you maintain your interest in eating.
  • Keeping healthy snacks that you enjoy on hand will help you eat when you're hungry rather than waiting for mealtimes and perhaps losing your appetite.

WebMD Medical Reference

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