Managing Effects of Radiation Therapy

Home Remedies and When to Call Your Doctor

learn how to manage peeling skin from radiation therapy
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Side effects of radiation therapy, such as skin irritation, fatigue, cough, and more are common during treatment. Having an awareness of simple tips, such as how to care for you skin, how to pace yourself when tired, and staying out of the cold to help your cough can make you more comfortable. It's also important to know when home remedies aren't enough and you need to call your doctor.

Skin Irritation

Within the first few weeks of radiation therapy, you may notice your skin becoming red and irritated. Your physician may prescribe a cream to ease the discomfort.Taking care to protect your skin from other sources of irritation can help as well.

Home Remedies for Skin Redness and Rashes

There are many things you can do yourself to help you cope with the common skin redness and irritation associated with radiation therapy:

  • Use plain water or gentle soap to cleanse the area where radiation is applied. Avoid scrubbing your skin, and pat yourself lightly to dry off after bathing; be careful not to wash off the tattoos that were applied to guide your treatments.
  • Try not to scratch your skin.
  • Wear loose clothing that does not rub. Cotton materials are preferable to rougher materials, such as wool.
  • For women, bras can be irritating, substituting a T-shirt or camisole may be more comfortable.
  • Use gentle detergents to wash your clothes, and avoid applying starch when ironing.
  • Practice caution in the sun. Your skin may burn more easily, and sunburn can amplify the redness and irritation from radiation therapy. Sunscreens, though, can be irritating, so covering up with an umbrella and avoiding midday sun is a better option.
  • Avoid any lotions, creams or powders, unless they are recommended by your radiation oncologist. Many of these skin products contain chemicals that can further irritate your skin.
  • Recently, one study found that applying aloe vera prior to radiation treatments reduced the degree of skin irritation. But as noted above, it's important to talk with your radiation oncologist about anything you apply to your skin before and during treatments.
  • Avoid using band-aids or tape on your skin.
  • Avoid exposing the area to extreme cold or heat; do not use ice packs or heating pads.

When to Call Your Doctor

Skin irritation, referred to as "radiation induced dermatitis" by doctors, is often primarily a nuisance. That said, having open wounds, especially when combined with an impaired immune system (such as after chemotherapy), severe infections sometimes develop. Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that may develop, and usually requires antibiotic treatment.

For women who have radiation therapy after a mastectomy and reconstruction, skin sores can provide access for bacteria to enter, and infections necessitating surgery (with removal of the implants and debridement) may sometimes occur. These infections are sometimes challenging to treat, requiring intensive antibiotic therapy and hyperbaric oxygen at times.

If you develop a rash that looks like a severe sunburn, you should also call your doctor immediately, An inflammatory condition referred to as radiation recall may occur in some people who receive chemotherapy (or some targeted therapy drugs) before radiation therapy.

Fatigue

Fatigue is very common during radiation treatment and often worsens with time. There are many cancer treatments that can cause fatigue, as well as the cancer itself, and radiation often compounds fatigue that is already present to some degree. Having an awareness of this and giving yourself permission to rest is the first step in dealing with the fatigue of radiation therapy and lung cancer in general. Let your loved ones know what they can do to support you during this time.

it's important for your loved ones to understand that cancer fatigue is different than ordinary tiredness. It doesn't usually respond to rest or a cup of coffee, and a sense of overwhelming tiredness can occur with often minimal activities. Feeling fatigued can also leave people feeling very emotional, and anger and frustration is common.

Home Remedies for Radiation-Related Fatigue

A few principles that may help as well include:

  • Rest when you are tired.
  • Pace yourself throughout the day.
  • Eat healthful, well-balanced meals.
  • Accept help from others.
  • Exercise daily, even a few minutes of light exercise, such as walking, may help. It may sound counterintuitive, but small amounts of exercise can significantly reduce cancer fatigue.
  • Try to get plenty of sleep at night, and nap during the day, if needed.
  • Check out these tips for coping with cancer fatigue.

When to Call Your Doctor

Some fatigue, even severe fatigue, is to be expected with radiation therapy. While you may hesitate to talk to your doctor about fatigue for this reason, it's important to do so. There are many reasons why people can be fatigued during cancer treatment, and some of these are treatable including:

  • Anemia (a low red blood cell count)
  • Hypoxia (a low level of oxygen in the blood)
  • Pain that is not well controlled
  • Resting too much
  • Inadequate nutrition (nutritional deficiencies aren't uncommon for people who have mouth sores or taste changes due to chemotherapy, or difficulty swallowing due to radiation)
  • Some medications (especially pain medications)

Difficulty Swallowing

During radiation therapy for lung cancer, your esophagus (the tube that runs from your mouth to your stomach) can become inflamed. Doctors term this "radiation esophagitis." Symptoms can include heartburn, a sensation of something being stuck in your throat, or difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).

Home Remedies for Radiation Related Dysphagia

Eating practices that may lessen these symptoms include:

  • Drinking liquids before meals.
  • Eating slowly.
  • Cutting food into small pieces.
  • Eating smaller meals more frequently.
  • Avoiding alcohol, acidic foods, dry foods and foods that are either very hot or very cold.
  • Choosing smooth-textured foods, such as yogurt.
  • Placing fruit in smoothies rather than eating them whole.
  • Remaining seated upright for 15 minutes after meals.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you feel like something is stuck in your throat you should seek medical attention immediately. You should also see your doctor if your symptoms aren't allowing you to eat a healthy diet, or if even liquids are difficult to swallow.

Cough

Radiation therapy lowers the level of surfactant in your lungs. Sometimes steroids are used to treat this. With radiation to the chest region, inflammation referred to a radiation pneumonitis may occur. Without treatment, this can progress to lung fibrosis.

Home Remedies for Radiation Related Cough

Things you can do at home to ease your symptoms include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Sleeping with an extra pillow.
  • Using a humidifier, but first, discuss this with your oncologist.
  • Staying inside in very cold weather, and covering your mouth with a scarf when you must go outside.

When to Call Your Doctor

Since radiation pneumonitis is common, and can progress to fibrosis if not treated, it's important for people to carefully monitor any symptoms that could suggest pneumonitis is present. These may include a worsening cough, chest pain that often worsens with a deep breath, increasing shortness of breath, or a fever. This can be challenging for people who already have lung-related symptoms, but it's better to be safe than sorry and contact your doctor if you have any doubts whatsoever.

A Word From Verywell

Side effects from radiation are usually not as severe or life-threatening as those associated with treatments such as chemotherapy (but certainly can be at times). For this reason, some people are hesitant to complain about unpleasant symptoms. Talking to your doctor, however, is important for more than one reason. Symptoms that are primarily a nuisance can be serious if not addressed. And even if this were not the case, side effects of treatment can reduce your quality of life as you live with your cancer.

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