Radiation dermatitis is a skin disease that develops when a patient undergoes radiotherapy for the treatment of cancer. It affects the majority of patients undergoing radiotherapy. There are three major types of the dermatitis. In some cases, the dermatitis develops into a new cancer. Treating the disease requires the assistance of a dermatologist.
Radiotherapy, also known as radiation oncology, is a form of cancer treatment generally paired with chemotherapy and surgery. During treatment, beams of radiation are focused onto a tumor, the goal being to kill malignant cells. As the radiation must first pass through the skin, the skin's quickly dividing cells become damaged as a result. The dermatitis first presents as a patch of irritation resembling a sunburn. In most cases, healing occurs within weeks of the end of radiotherapy, though some patients report that skin discoloration remains for many years.
There are three main forms of radiation dermatitis. The first is acute radiodermatitis. It appears less than 24 hours after initial exposure and will present with reddening of the skin and possibly blistering. Chronic radiodermatitis takes longer to develop and has different symptoms. It develops after many treatments, thickening the skin and possibly causing another cancer years later.
The last form of radiation dermatitis affects mostly women, as it mainly appears during the treatment of breast or cervical cancer. Known as eosinophillic, polymorphic, and pruritic eruption association with radiotherapy (EPPER), this form of dermatitis is characterized by the formation of papules and skin eruptions. Treating EPPER is much more difficult than other forms of radiation dermatitis due to the combination of open sores and a patient's already weakened immune system. The possibility of infection complicates treating the cancer.
A very small percentage of radiation dermatitis becomes skin cancer. Though chronic radiodermatitis has the highest chance of becoming cancer, all cases of radiation dermatitis are closely monitored during and after radiation treatment for the first signs of cancer. The due diligence by the medical community plays a large role in reducing the number of skin cancers that occur due to radiotherapy.
Treating radiation dermatitis requires a patient to see his or her dermatologist throughout and after radiotherapy treatments. Besides checking the dermatitis for cancer, a dermatologist is able to prescribe medications, usually creams, to reduce inflammation and pain. A dermatologist can also give advice on the best ways to clean and care for the dermatitis until it heals on its own after radiotherapy has ended.