About Radiation Dermatitis

What is radiation dermatitis?

As explained in the radiation therapy part of the website, radiotherapy uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. As a side effect of this treatment, nearby healthy cells may also be affected and this may lead to radiation dermatitis.

Be advised that radiation dermatitis is a common side effect which occurs during ongoing radiation treatment, and that 75–95% of patients will experience it, but with a varying degree.1–6

Radiation dermatitis could be mistaken with skin burn. However, radiation dermatitis is the result of damage to the deeper cell layer of the skin, and the resultant imbalance at the skin surface, between the normal production and destruction of cells.8

Generally, the radiation skin damage can be seen approximately 10–14 days after the first dose of radiation. This corresponds to the time it takes for the damaged cells to migrate to the surface of the skin.9

If the new cells reproduce faster than the old cells are shed, the skin will become dry and flakey (dry desquamation).8

As radiotherapy continues, the body may not produce enough new cells to replace the old ones and therefore the outer layer of the skin may become broken and start oozing (moist desquamation).10

The severity of the skin reactions may increase for 2 weeks after radiation therapy completion.


1. Naylor W, Mallett J. Management of acute radiotherapy induced skin reactions: a literature review. Eur J Oncol Nurs. 2001 Dec;5(4):221-33.
2. Porock D, Kristjanson L. Skin reactions during radiotherapy for breast cancer: the use and impact of topical agents and dressings. Eur J Cancer Care. 1999 Sep;8(3):143-53.
3. D’Haese S, Bate T, Claes S, Boone A, Vanvoorden V, Efficace F. Management of skin reactions during radiotherapy: a study of nursing practice. Eur J Cancer Care. 2005 Mar;14(1):28-42.
4. DeLand MM, Weiss RA, McDaniel DH, Geronemus RG. Treatment of radiation-induced dermatitis with light-emitting diode (LED) photomodulation. Lasers Surg Med. 2007 Feb;39(2):164-8.
5. MacBride SK, Wells ME, Hornsby C, Sharp L, Finnila K, Downie L. A case study to evaluate a new soft silicone
dressing, Mepilex Lite, for patients with radiation skin reactions. Cancer Nurs. 2008 Jan-Feb;31(1):E8-14.
6. Kedge E. A systematic review to investigate the effectiveness and acceptability of interventions for moist desquamation in radiotherapy patients. Radiography. 2009;15(3):247-57.
7. Mesía R, Vilajosana E, Lozano A, Esteller L, Vázquez S. Management of cutaneous toxicity and radiation dermatitis in patients with squamous cancer of the head and neck undergoing concurrent treatment with cetuximab and radiotherapy. J Cancer Sci Ther. 2009;1(1):28-33.
8. Kedge. Radiography 2009;15:247–257
9. Porock et al. European Journal of Cancer Care 1999;8:143–153
10. Denham JW, Hauer-Jensen M. Radiother Oncol 2002;63(2):129-45