Radiation: Skin And Hair

Learning to care for the skin- and hair-related side effects of radiation therapy.

How Are Skin Problems Treated?

You may notice that your skin in the treatment area is red or irritated. It may look as if it is sunburned, or tanned. After a few weeks your skin may be very dry from the therapy. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice on how to relieve itching or discomfort.

With some kinds of radiation therapy, treated skin may develop a “moist reaction,” especially in areas where there are skin folds. When this happens, the skin is wet and it may become very sore. It’s important to notify your doctor or nurse if your skin develops a moist reaction. They can give you suggestions on how to care for these areas and prevent them from becoming infected. Other tips on skin care can be found in the section on external radiation therapy.

During radiation therapy you will need to be very gentle with the skin in the treatment area. The following suggestions may be helpful:

  • Avoid irritating treated skin.
  • When you wash, use only lukewarm water and mild soap; pat dry.
  • Do not wear tight clothing over the area.
  • Do not rub, scrub, or scratch the skin in the treatment area.
  • Avoid putting anything that is hot or cold, such as heating pads or ice packs, on your treated skin.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse to recommend skin care products that will not cause skin irritation. Do not use any powders, creams, perfumes, deodorants, body oils, ointments, lotions, or home remedies in the treatment area while you’re being treated and for several weeks afterward unless approved by your doctor or nurse.
  • Do not apply any skin lotions within 2 hours of a treatment.
  • Avoid exposing the radiated area to the sun during treatment. If you expect to be in the sun for more than a few minutes you will need to be very careful. Wear protective clothing (such as a hat with a broad brim and a shirt with long sleeves) and use a sunscreen. Ask your doctor or nurse about using sun-blocking lotions. After your treatment is over, ask your doctor or nurse how long you should continue to take extra precautions in the sun.

The majority of skin reactions to radiation therapy go away a few weeks after treatment is completed. In some cases, though, the treated skin will remain slightly darker than it was before and it may continue to be more sensitive to sun exposure.

What Can Be Done About Hair Loss?

Radiation therapy can cause hair loss, also known as alopecia, but only in the area being treated. For example, if you are receiving treatment to your hip, you will not lose the hair from your head. Radiation of your head may cause you to lose some or all of the hair on your scalp. Many patients find that their hair grows back again after the treatments are finished. The amount of hair that grows back will depend on how much and what kind of radiation you receive. You may notice that your hair has a slightly different texture or color when it grows back. Other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, also can affect how your hair grows back.

Although your scalp may be tender after the hair is lost, it’s a good idea to cover your head with a hat, turban, or scarf. You should wear a protective cap or scarf when you’re in the sun or outdoors in cold weather. If you prefer a wig or toupee, be sure the lining does not irritate your scalp. The cost of a hairpiece that you need because of cancer treatment is a tax-deductible expense and may be covered in part by your health insurance. If you plan to buy a wig, it’s a good idea to select it early in your treatment if you want to match the color and style to your own hair.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted from Radiation Therapy and You: A Guide to Self Help During Cancer Treatment, developed by the United States National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute, September 1999.

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