Radiation Burns

Radiation dermatitis or radiation burn is a side effect of radiation therapy to treat cancer. Each year an estimated 4 million people in the United States receive radiation therapy. Almost everyone who has radiation therapy develops radiation dermatitis. Most radiation burn symptoms are mild, but 20% of people may have more serious symptoms.


What is radiation dermatitis (radiation burn?)

Radiation dermatitis or radiation burn is a side effect of radiation therapy to treat cancer. Each year, an estimated 4 million people in the United States receive radiation therapy, and more than 90% will have some form of radiation dermatitis or develop radiation burn.

Most radiation burn symptoms are mild and easily treated. An estimated 20% of people who receive radiation therapy may develop more serious symptoms that affect their daily life and may make them fearful or reluctant to continue radiation therapy.

Healthcare providers understand all the ways radiation therapy can affect people receiving cancer treatment. Providers and researchers continuously evaluate ways to limit and treat radiation burn.


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Who is affected by radiation burn?

Radiation burn can happen to anyone who is receiving radiation therapy. But studies show radiation burn is most common for people who have radiation therapy for breast cancer, head and neck cancers or cancers that develop on or near your skin, such as skin cancer or anal cancer.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes radiation burn?

Radiation burn or radiation dermatitis is a common side effect of external beam radiation therapy to treat some forms of cancer. This type of radiation therapy delivers radiation through a machine that targets cancerous cells. The treatment isn’t painful. But it can make your skin sore, peel, itch or turn red. That’s because radiation passes through your skin to its target.

Will I notice symptoms right away?

You may not have any problems during your first few sessions. Most people whose treatment is close to the skin’s surface notice their skin is itchy and dry after the first session. Your skin may feel itchy and dry during your treatment. Some people develop radiation burn after their final session. That’s because radiation keeps on working even after you finish your treatment.


What are radiation burn symptoms?

Radiation therapy can take place over days to several weeks, with radiation burn symptoms happening during radiation therapy or after therapy is done. Common radiation burn symptoms are:

  • Reddening of white skin or darkening of skin that is black or brown.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Dry and peeling skin.
  • Swelling.
  • Blistering.
  • Open sores that may appear where your skin is sweaty or damp, such as your armpits or under your breasts.

Diagnosis and Tests

How do healthcare providers diagnose radiation burns?

Healthcare providers know radiation therapy can cause painful or irritating skin problems. As you go through treatment, providers will ask if you’re having any trouble with your skin. They may also check your skin for any radiation burn symptoms.


Management and Treatment

How is radiation dermatitis treated?

Healthcare providers may recommend creams to ease symptoms like dry, itchy skin. They also may prescribe special creams to treat severe radiation dermatitis or radiation burns. For example, if you’re being treated for breast cancer, your provider may prescribe a steroid cream to reduce your risk of developing radiation dermatitis. Talk to your provider before using any cream or other moisturizer. They will let you know what creams are safe and the best ways to use them.

How long does it take for radiation burn symptoms to heal?

Most mild radiation burn symptoms subside a few weeks after you finish your treatment. Ask your healthcare provider if your radiation therapy might cause delayed radiation dermatitis symptoms.

Will I need to stop radiation therapy if I have radiation burn?

No, most people don’t need to stop radiation treatment because they develop radiation dermatitis. But your healthcare provider may adjust your treatment so your current symptoms don’t get worse or so you don't develop new symptoms.

Are there other steps I can take to help my skin heal or reduce symptoms?

Here are some ways you can protect your skin and ease your radiation burn symptoms:

  • Wash your irritated skin with mild soap and lukewarm water.
  • Don’t rub or scratch your irritated skin.
  • Don’t use heating pads or ice on your treatment area.
  • Use moisturizing cream as directed.
  • If you cover your treatment area with bandages, secure the bandages with paper tape so you don’t pull on your skin. Try to place the tape away from your treatment area and don’t put the tape in the same place each time.
  • Wear loose, soft clothing that doesn’t rub against or irritate skin affected by radiation.
  • If you need to shave your treatment area, use an electric razor to avoid irritating your skin.
  • Stay out of the sun. Wear protective clothing any time you’re exposed to sunlight. Ask your healthcare provider if you should use sunscreen and what kind of sunscreen is best.
  • Stay cool. Your skin may feel better if you’re able to spend time in cool humid environments. Use cool mist humidifiers to banish dryness.
  • Talk to your provider before putting anything on your treatment area. This includes cosmetics, hair removal products, powders, creams, lotions, oils, ointments and perfumes.


How do I prevent radiation burn?

Not everyone develops radiation burn from radiation therapy. Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific treatment, including the area of your body to be treated and the treatment technique. Your provider will recommend ways to prevent radiation dermatitis or ease your symptoms.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have radiation dermatitis?

Radiation therapy can make your skin feel dry, very itchy and painful. Most radiation burn symptoms subside or go away a few weeks after you finish treatment.

Living With

How do I take care of myself if I have radiation burn?

The most important thing is to be gentle with your skin, from washing your skin each day to the clothes you wear to protecting your skin from sunlight.

Your healthcare provider knows radiation therapy can take a toll on your skin. They’ll check your skin throughout your treatment. But you should keep a close eye on your skin’s condition and let your provider know any time your skin hurts, itches or you notice other changes.

When should I go to the emergency room?

Your skin can become infected. You should contact your healthcare provider go to the emergency room if you notice the skin in your treatment area:

  • Looks unusually red or becomes red very quickly.
  • You develop a fever.
  • Your treatment area begins to drain liquid that smells bad.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

Radiation burn or radiation dermatitis is a very common radiation therapy side effect. Here are some questions to help you prepare for your treatment and its effect on your skin:

  • How does radiation therapy for my cancer affect my skin?
  • What are radiation dermatitis symptoms and when do they occur?
  • Is there anything I can do to prevent radiation burn?
  • Are there soaps, lotions and creams I can use, or should avoid?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Radiation therapy is a common and effective cancer treatment. Unfortunately, this effective treatment can come with side effects, including radiation burn or radiation dermatitis. You can develop radiation burn or radiation dermatitis if you’re being treated for head and neck cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer or other cancers that are on or close to your skin. Radiation burn symptoms can range from mild irritation to more serious symptoms such as infections and open sores. As you prepare for radiation treatment, ask your healthcare provider how treatment might affect your skin. They will tell you what to expect, and as important, what they will do to help if you develop radiation burn.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 10/29/2021.

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