Radiation burns

How do radiation burns affect cancer patients?

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation or radioactive substances to shrink or kill cancerous cells. When radiation passes through the skin, the skin cells in the treatment area may become damaged. After frequent radiation treatments, skin cells often do not have enough time to repair and regenerate between treatments. Radiation therapy may cause the exposed skin to peel off more quickly than it can grow back, causing sores or ulcers. While these wounds may look and feel like burns, the term is a misnomer, since the treatment does not actually burn the skin. For it to heal, the skin needs time to regenerate, a process that may take two to four weeks for mild reactions, or several months or more for serious injuries. In the interim, various supportive care therapies may be used to soothe the itching and pain that often results.

How common are radiation burns in cancer patients?

Acute skin reactions, ranging from a slight rash to severe ulcerated or blistered skin, are common side effects of radiation treatment. An estimated 85 percent of patients who undergo radiation therapy experience moderate to severe skin reactions, according to Current Oncology, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Acute reactions to radiation treatments may lead to itchiness, pain and reduced quality of life.

How may integrative care help?

Patients experiencing pain, itching or other discomfort caused by radiation burns have a number of integrative tools at their disposal to help alleviate the symptoms. These include:

Pain management

Staffed by licensed physicians, the pain management team at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) may prescribe topical drugs such as therapeutic creams or ointments. Antibiotics may also be used to fight infection, or pain medications may help relieve discomfort. For severe skin reactions, such as a redness that evolves into blistering, thinning of the skin or infection, the pain management team may recommend discontinuing radiation treatments for a period of time to allow the skin to heal.

Learn more about pain management