How to Manage Itchy Skin From Blood Cancer Treatment

itchy skin
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In patients with leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma, itchy skin can be caused by a number of factors. Some causes of irritation include dry skin from radiotherapy, reactions to chemotherapy, responses to multiple antibiotics and supportive medications, or just from cancer itself, As a result, having the urge it scratch is a common side effect.

Itchy skin can be more than just irritating, however. Our skin is our first line of protection from infection. When we scratch we are increasing our risk of complications. While you are under treatment, you are already at a higher risk of infection. It can also make it difficult to get restful sleep and it is a source of stress. Therefore, it is worthwhile to learn some strategies so you can prevent the need to scratch.

How to Prevent Itchy Skin

Preventing your skin from drying out and becoming irritated is one tactic. Here are a few things you can try:

  • Keep your skin moist by applying a moisturizing cream to damp skin. Applying them after your bath when your skin is damp is a good habit.
  • Look for skin creams that don't contain alcohols or fragrances, which can dry or irritate the skin. Ask your pharmacist if you have trouble finding one.
  • Look at what products you use on your skin and avoid any that have scents or alcohol. Powders can clump and cause irritation. You may need to avoid all after-shaves and perfumes.
  • Avoid showering or bathing in hot water, try lukewarm instead
  • If you live in a dry environment, try a humidifier
  • Avoid sweat, keep your room cool indoors.
  • Moisturize from inside by drinking plenty of water.
  • Try moisturizing hand sanitizer in place of soap/water if you need to wash your hands frequently. Apply lotion after washing hands, too.
  • Avoid tight or irritating clothing

Controlling the Urge to Scratch

Despite your best efforts, you may still find yourself tempted to scratch. In fact, itchy skin can become so irritating that it can affect your sleep and lifestyle. There are a few things you can do to try and decrease the itchy sensation:

  • Apply creams as directed.
  • Try alternatives to scratching such as pressure, massage, cool compresses, vibration or gentle rubbing (make sure not to get carried away!)
  • Keep your fingernails trimmed and smooth, wear gloves on your hands and socks on your feet at night to prevent scratching.
  • Use distraction techniques such as guided imagery or relaxation.
  • Take any medications that your healthcare provider has ordered for itch relief on a regular basis.

When to Call Your Doctor

If your itching doesn't go away after two days or more, call your doctor to discuss it. You should call if you have been scratching until your skin is bleeding, or you have blisters or crusts on your skin. Look for other symptoms of skin infection or allergic reaction such as pus, drainage, right red skin, and worsening rash. Even if it just is making you restless or you can't sleep through the night, it's time to get help. 

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Article Sources

  • Itching, American Cancer Society, 06/08/2015
  • Otto, S. Protective Mechanisms. In Otto, S. (ed) (2001) Oncology Nursing 4th ed St. Louis: Mosby. (pp. 917- 948)
  • Seiz, A., Yarbro, C. Pruritis. In Yarbro, C., Frogge, M., Goodman, M. (eds) (1999) Cancer Symptom Management 2nd ed. Subury: Jones and Bartlett.