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Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

The side effects of radiation therapy depend on the treatment dose and the part of the body that is being treated. The most common side effects may be loss of hair in the area being treated, tiredness, skin reactions (such as rash or redness) in the treated area, loss of appetite, and nausea. Radiation therapy may also cause a decrease in the number of white blood cells (cells that help protect the body against infection).

Common Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

  • Hair loss to the area being treated
  • Fatigue
  • Skin reactions (such as rash or redness) in the treated area
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea

Fatigue: Many times, patients experience fatigue (extreme tiredness) between radiation treatment sessions because their bodies are devoting a significant amount of energy to the healing process. Fatigue can also result from the stress of dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.Fatigue is usually temporary and tends to go away after treatment is completed. However, if patients do feel fatigued, they should get plenty of rest and may need to scale back on activities until their energy level returns to normal. While many patients can still work and participate in normal activities during radiation therapy, some patients find it necessary to limit their work or physical activities until treatment has been completed.

Hair loss (alopecia): Hair loss can occur at the site of the body where radiation is received. However, patients will not lose the hair on their heads if they have radiation to another part of their body, such as the breast. Patients who do undergo radiation therapy to the head may lose their hair. This loss of hair is often temporary, but the likelihood that the hair will grow back depends on several factors, including the radiation dose and duration of treatment. A variety of options are available for patients who experience hair loss during cancer treatment such as wigs, hats, turbans, and scarves. More information on coping with hair loss during cancer treatment.

Skin reactions: Rashes, redness, irritation, or sunburned-like effects on the skin can occur to the site of the body where the radiation is received. These effects are usually temporary and go away after treatment is completed; although in some cases, the skin will be slightly darker than it was originally. If skin reactions during radiation therapy are bothersome, patients are encouraged to talk to their physicians about treatment options. Patients should only use soap and lukewarm water on the skin during radiation. In general, powders, creams, perfumes, deodorants, body oils, ointments, lotions, or other products should not be used unless the patient's physician states otherwise.

Loss of appetite: This side effect can occur from radiation therapy, other cancer treatments, or the stress of coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is important the patient try to maintain a healthy diet during cancer treatment. Suggestions for coping with loss of appetite during treatment.

Nausea: Some patients may experience nausea from radiation therapy. In such cases, nausea usually occurs during the first few hours after radiation. Some patients find that avoiding food before the radiation session alleviates the nausea. Suggestions for coping with nausea during cancer treatment.

Additional information about the side effects associated with radiotherapy can be found in the National Cancer Institute booklet, Radiation Therapy and You.