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Caring for Burns as a Side Effect of Radiotherapy

written by: BStone • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 5/10/2011

Burns, redness, dry and swollen skin are all possible side effects of radiation therapy. How should burns from cancer treatment radiation be managed?

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    How Radiation Can Affect the Skin

    One of the possible side effects of radiation therapy is skin irritation. Redness, itching, peeling, swelling and tenderness can all occur on the area of the skin where the radiation is being used. Why is this? Radiation destroys skin cells. During treatment the skin is damaged and it does not have enough of an opportunity to heal in between treatment sessions. In fact, burns from radiation treatments can become increasingly worse until the therapy is over.

    After treatment is finished and the skin has had the chance to heal, the burns, redness, and damaged skin can clear up. However, it is possible that the skin will become permanently blotchy, darkened or thicker around the area of the radiation.

    The best thing you can do is to protect your skin and to moisturize it with gentle skin products or natural remedies, only after getting the approval of your doctor. Also, keep in mind that a nutrient-rich diet will help your body heal, so make nutrition a priority during and after undergoing therapy.

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    Protecting Your Skin

    While applying soothing lotions or other lubricants can be very beneficial, it is also important to protect and be extremely gentle with your skin during radiation therapy.

    • Avoid sun exposure and tanning beds as harmful UV rays can be even more dangerous to damaged skin.
    • Bathe in lukewarm, not hot water.
    • Do not scrub, scratch, or rub your radiation burns, even if they itch.
    • Avoid extremes. No heating pads or ice packs
    • Avoid chemicals on irritated, damaged skin; use only a mild soap without any synthetic fragrances, dyes or deodorants. Keep away from perfume, make-up, bubble baths and lotions or creams that contain synthetic chemicals. Before you decide to apply a product to your skin, discuss it with your doctor first.
    • Wear breathable, soft clothing. Natural, organic fabric will have the most gentle impact.
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    Treating Your Skin

    What can be used to sooth painful radiation burns, to moisturize dry, flaking skin and to promote the healing of damaged cells? Aloe vera gel is a very good natural remedy for burns and minor skin irritations, although the American Cancer Society does point out that research has shown aloe vera gel does not to protect against dermatitis after radiotherapy. It has cooling, soothing properties that can at the very least bring safe and natural relief. Be sure to use only pure aloe vera gel or simply go directly to the aloe plant for your gel.

    Aloe Vera Plant Another natural remedy for burns from cancer treatment radiation is turmeric (curcumin), which has excellent anti-inflammatory properties. In animal studies, when applied to the skin before radiation, turmeric helped to reduce burning, swelling and redness.

    While the benefits of this natural substance are promising, talk to your doctor before applying to the skin. Meanwhile, adding some tumeric to your cooking can certainly improve your well-being without any conflict.

    Your doctor can also provide a cream to use on your skin while going through radiation therapy. Be sure to ask about when to apply, how often, and if there are other acceptable alternatives to use, particularly after radiation therapy is finished, such as a calendula cream, emu oil or jojoba oil.

    There are many ways to take care of and treat your radiation treatment burns. Be sure to take good care of your skin as it is in a very delicate state while cells are being damaged. Also keep in mind that the redness and blistering will heal. Eat a healthy diet, protect the skin, and use moisturizing agents according to your doctor's instructions.

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    References

    American Cancer Society <http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/HerbsVitaminsandMinerals/aloe>

    National Cancer Institute <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/radiation-therapy-and-you/page8#SE8>

    BBC News <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2308745.stm>

    Page, Linda. "Healthy Healing: A Guide to Self-Healing for Everyone, 11th Edition" (Traditional Wisdom, 2003).

    photo by Paul Sturgess

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