Side effects from radiation therapy to the skin

During radiation therapy to the skin, you may experience different short-term side effects.

What are the possible short-term side effects?

Radiation therapy to the skin may cause a number of short-term side effects. However, everyone is different and you’re unlikely to experience all of the same side effects as someone who is receiving the same treatment as you.

If you’re concerned about any side effects during your radiation therapy treatment to the skin, we encourage you to speak with your care team who can help you with strategies to manage your side effects.

Types of short-term side effects

Skin reaction

Two to three weeks after your treatment begins, your skin may become red, itchy or irritated. Towards the end of treatment, the skin reaction can become more intense however usually returns to normal four to six weeks after treatment finishes.

Your nurses will show you how to care for your skin and manage any skin reactions. Tell your nurse if you’re worried about a skin reaction or are experiencing any skin changes.

Discomfort and sensitivity

Skin changes should settle within four weeks of your last treatment. If you experience discomfort in the area you may need to take some pain medication. Please talk to your nurse about any discomfort.


You may feel tired or lack energy for daily activities during your treatment. You may feel increasingly tired as you reach the end of your treatment. This is a common reaction to radiation therapy and each person is usually affected to varying degrees. Fatigue usually eases a few weeks after treatment finishes. Finding a balance between rest and activity will help you manage daily life.

Skin loss

If you experience superficial skin loss this can be managed with a simple dressing until the area heals. It is important to talk to your nursing team about the best way to manage any skin loss as many types of dressings can’t be used on skin treatment areas.

How can I manage skin changes?

Moisturise twice a day

Your care team will recommend a cream to help manage any skin changes. At the start of your treatment, apply cream to the area being treated twice a day. As treatment progresses, you may need to apply the cream three to four times per day. Do not apply cream within the hour prior to your treatment, as cream needs to be well absorbed. Let your nursing team know if you continue to experience skin changes.

Wear loose fitting clothing

Avoid wearing tight fitting clothing that could potentially rub or irritate the skin. You may find singlets, cotton ‘crop-tops’ or loose fitting bras more comfortable. Avoid underwire or lace bras.

Avoid excessive temperatures

Avoid exposing the treatment area to excessive temperature including direct sunlight, heat packs, ice packs, saunas or hot spas during the course of your radiation therapy.

Wash with warm water and pat dry

You may wash the skin that is being treated with warm water and a mild non-perfumed soap. Pat dry the skin – do not rub. Use an electric razor if shaving in the area is necessary.

Washing and styling your hair

If you are receiving radiation therapy to the scalp, avoid frequently shampooing your hair. You may wash your hair with warm water and a mild, non-perfumed shampoo. Let your hair dry naturally. Avoid hair dryers, curling irons and straighteners. Continue this for two weeks after completing treatment or until there are no signs of irritation. Avoid using hairsprays, gels or styling products. Do not colour or perm your hair until four weeks after your treatment is complete.

Protect your head from the sun

Wear a wide brimmed soft hat at all times when outdoors. Avoid applying sunscreen to the treatment area.


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