Skin and nail changes

Dermatologist examining skin
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Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapies and immunotherapies can cause skin or nail problems. Most skin changes get better soon after you stop treatment. 

What kind of changes can happen? 

  • Skin may become dry, flaky and itchy, or peel
  • Skin may become more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s more lightly to burn (photosensitivity)
  • You skin may feel sore
  • Nails may become dark, yellow or brittle, or even loosen and fall off. But don’t worry about this, as new nails will grow back over time.
  • You may get a rash. Rashes and itching can be mild or more severe. You may get bumps, pimples or an acne-like rash.
  • Skin may become darker.

Hand foot syndrome: Hand foot syndrome causes pain, swelling and redness of your hands and/or your feet.  It can look like sunburn, where your skin begins to peel as well. Read more about hand foot syndrome.

How are skin changes treated?

  • Dry skin. Moisturising your skin should help with dry skin conditions,

    For some changes you may just need to take extra care of your skin to avoid irritating it. Your medical team will advise you about this. You may also be given special creams to help. We also have some skincare tips below. 

  • Rashes or itching. Ask your nurse or doctor for advice if you develop a rash or itchy skin – there are medicines and creams that can help. 

    Sometimes a rash or itch could be a sign that you are reacting to a drug, so always let your medical team know straight away if you notice any skin changes

  • Increased sensitivity to sunlight. Ask your nurse or doctor about what precautions you should take. You may need to stay out of the sun altogether. In general, always protect your skin – cover up, wear a hat and use a suncream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

What I can do? 

Tips and hints – skin care

  • Keep your skin moisturised.
  • Avoid perfumed products and products containing alcohol.
  • Protect your skin from cold weather by wrapping up well.
  • Protect your skin from the sun. Cover up and use a sunscreen or sunblock, (SPF 30 or more). Don’t apply sunscreen before radiation treatment.
  • Use emollient creams to relieve itchy skin, Do not scratch or rub the treated area as it may become sore.
  • Gently pat yourself dry with a soft towel after a bath or shower.
  • Do not wet shave within the area or use shaving lotion or hair removal products. Use an electric razor 
  • Don’t apply heat or cold to the affected area. For example, heating pads, hot water bottles, ice packs. Avoid saunas and steamrooms.
  • In general you may find it more comfortable to wear loose, casual clothing made from natural fibres like cotton.

Changes to your nails

Some cancer drugs can cause your nails to become dry or brittle.  They may grow more slowly.  Lines may appear across your nails or they may change in shape or colour.  On occasion, your nails may become painful and be lost altogether. It’s important to let your nurse know of any changes to your nails when you are having your treatment.

It is important to contact your oncology nurse or specialist if you notice any signs of infection around your nails, such as swelling and pain.

Your nails should start to grow as normal when you finish your treatment.

Tips to care for your nails

  • Use a nail strengthening cream to help with dryness and splitting.  
  • Use nail varnish if your nails are discoloured, unless your nails are split or sore. It’s best to use a water based nail varnish.  Don’t use false or acrylic nails during treatment or when nails are sore or damaged. 
  • Don’t cut your cuticles. Use a cuticle cream. 
  • File your nails rather than cutting them. File your nails in one direction, rather than moving the nail file back and forth, to try to avoid splitting your nails more. 
  • Wear gloves while doing housework, especially washing-up. Excessive exposure to water can lead to fungal infections of the nail bed.
  • Wear comfortable shoes that aren’t too tight.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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