Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment. It uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink malignant tumors. Radiation therapy is effective on many different types of cancer.

A common side effect is a skin condition called radiation dermatitis, also known as X-ray dermatitis or radiation burns. Concentrated exposure to radiation causes painful marks on the skin.

Nearly two-thirds of people with cancer are treated with radiation therapy. Of those people, roughly 85 percent experience moderate-to-severe skin reactions.

These typically occur within the first two weeks of treatment and can last for several years after therapy is completed.

During radiation treatment, concentrated X-ray beams pass through the skin and produce irradiated free radicals. This causes:

  • tissue damage
  • DNA damage
  • inflamed skin (affects both the epidermis and dermis, or outer and inner layers of skin)

As radiation treatment continues, the skin doesn’t have enough time between doses to heal. Eventually, the affected area of skin breaks down. This causes pain, discomfort, and rashes.

General symptoms of radiation burns include:

X-ray dermatitis ranges from acute to chronic, and generally develops in four stages of severity. In some rare cases, a person may not develop radiation burns.

The four grades of radiation dermatitis are:

  1. redness
  2. peeling
  3. swelling
  4. death of skin cells

Some people are more likely to get radiation dermatitis than others. Risk factors include:

With the right approach, this side effect can be reduced or eliminated. The best method is to combine topical and oral treatment options.

1. Corticosteroid cream

Topical steroid cream is often prescribed for radiation dermatitis, although clinical evidence is mixed concerning this treatment option.

2. Antibiotics

Oral and topical antibiotics have shown effectiveness in treating the burns associated with radiotherapy.

3. Silver leaf nylon dressing

Burns on the skin are typically treated with gauze. When it comes to radiation burns, though, studies show silver leaf nylon dressing is one of the best options available.

This skin dressing is effective because of its antimicrobial and anti-infective properties. The silver ions used in the nylon dressing release into the skin and work quickly to relieve discomfort and improve recovery.

It is also helpful for relieving symptoms of:

4. Zinc

The body uses zinc to promote immune function. It can be used topically to treat acne, burns, cuts and ulcers, in addition to X-ray dermatitis.

While doctors haven’t completely endorsed zinc as an effective treatment method, it has many benefits that can improve your skin. If taken orally, zinc is an effective treatment for ulcers and swelling.

5. Amifostine

Amifostine is a medicine that removes free radicals and reduces toxicity from radiation.

According to clinical trials, chemotherapy patients using amifostine had a 77 percent reduced risk of radiation dermatitis compared to those who didn’t use the drug.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the injectable form of amifostine. It’s only available via prescription, so you have to speak with your doctor about using this treatment option.

There are certain precautions you can take to prevent more serious symptoms of radiation burns.

Lots of things can make sore, crumbling, dry skin worse. As a general rule, try to avoid:

  • scratching and picking at affected skin
  • perfume, deodorant, and alcohol-based lotion
  • scented soap
  • swimming in pools or hot tubs with chlorine
  • spending too much time in the sun

Keeping your skin clean, dry, and moisturized can go far as an overall prevention plan for radiation burns.

Radiation therapy can treat cancer, but it also causes serious side effects. However, with the right treatment and oversight from your doctor or dermatologist, you can prevent and treat X-ray dermatitis.