What is Radiation Dermatitis and what causes it?

Modern radiation therapy (RT) utilizes a series of small doses of ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Your health care provider’s goal with this therapy is to kill tumor cells after repeated radiation exposures while limiting harm to surrounding healthy cells1. Radiation dermatitis (RD; also known as radiation-induced dermatitis, rad derm, or radiation-induced skin injury) is a term used to describe a spectrum of common skin reactions, or skin toxicities that are caused by radiation therapy.

What are the Symptoms of Radiation Dermatitis?

The stages of RD have been well-defined and progress in a predictable, radiation dose-dependent manner2. As early as the first dose of radiation therapy, when the cumulative radiation dose is still low, mild reactions such as skin redness (i.e., erythema) can occur.  As you receive more and more treatments, moderate reactions such as dry, flaky skin (i.e., dry desquamation) and severe reactions such as oozing skin (i.e., moist desquamation) may appear3. It is possible to have some radiation dermatitis symptoms occur a few weeks or months after your last treatment4.

Who will get Radiation Dermatitis?

As mentioned, symptoms and their progression (stages) are quite predictable. What is not predictable is who will exhibit symptoms of RD and who will not. Health care providers (HCPs,) like your Radiation Oncologist, recognize that physiological differences in people make it difficult to predict or pinpoint those who are susceptible to radiation dermatitis symptoms. Talk to your doctor about your physical characteristics that may make you more likely to exhibit symptoms.

radiation therapy treatments can cause radiation dermatitis

7 physical characteristics to talk to your radiation oncologist about concerning the likelihood of symptoms:

  1. Weight
  2. Skin color
  3. Diabetes
  4. Breast size
  5. Location of cancer
  6. Age
  7. Comorbidities: other diseases or medical conditions you may have

If you have Radiation Dermatitis, how is it treated or prevented?

Your HCP will typically suggest that you keep the radiated area clean with warm water and fragrance-free soap. Your provider may also suggest prophylactic (preventative) use of products to reduce or delay the effects of radiation dermatitis. There are currently no known ways to prevent radiation dermatitis; however, there are products on the market to help manage the symptoms or delay the onset of symptoms. Consult with your health care provider to see if applying KeraStat® Cream after your first radiation dose is right for you and your radiation therapy journey.

You can also find additional information in our News blog post here.

  1. Zeman E. The biological basis of radiation oncology. In: Gunderson LL, Tepper JE, Bogart JA, editors. Clinical radiation oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia,
    PA: Elsevier, 2016.
  2. Kole AJ, Kole L, Moran MS. Acute radiation dermatitis in breast cancer patients: challenges and solutions. Breast Cancer – Targets and Therapy. 2017;9:313-323. PMID 38503074.
  3. Leventhal J, Young MR. Radiation dermatitis: recognition, prevention, and management. Oncology. 2017 Dec 15;31(12):885-7, 894-9. PMID 29297172.
  4. Iacovelli NA, Torrente Y, Ciuffreda A, et al. Topical treatment of radiation-induced dermatitis: current issues and potential solutions. Drugs in Context 2020;9:2020-4-7. 2020 PMID 32587626.