Supportive care

Skin care

Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer can cause your skin (the area receiving radiation therapy) to become sore, red and flaky. Looking after your skin during and after radiation therapy is important. Good skin care can help to:

  • stop you getting an infection

  • make you feel more comfortable

  • reduce the chance that your therapy is delayed.

Before you begin radiation therapy, your cancer care team may look at your skin to check it is in good condition and make sure there are no open cuts or sores.

During radiation therapy, your doctor and cancer care team will monitor your skin in and around the area you are having treatment. Within 2–3 weeks of starting therapy, you may begin to notice:

  • red or dry skin

  • a change in skin colour

  • discomfort or irritation.

These symptoms are normal and may continue for 3–4 weeks after you finish radiation therapy. You may also experience peeling and weeping from the skin in the first 1–2 weeks and the last week of therapy.

What can I do to keep my skin healthy?

Your doctor and cancer care team will explain what you can do to care for your skin during and after radiation therapy. This includes following a simple skin care routine.

  • Use mild soap to wash skin in the area you are having treatment.

  • Keep your skin free from moisturising cream or ointment directly before a treatment session.

  • Apply a moisturising cream or ointment as recommended by your cancer care team straight after treatment and again before bed. On days when you are not having treatment, apply the ointment in the morning and at night. Examples of creams and ointments that may be recommended are unperfumed sorbolene, paw paw ointment, aloe vera gel and others. These can be purchased at most pharmacies and you can ask the pharmacist if you have questions.

  • Avoid using other skin creams (unless recommended by your cancer care team), make up, aftershave or perfume on the area during treated.

  • If you see any skin peeling towards the end of radiation therapy, your doctor and the cancer care team may give you gel dressings to cover the area for comfort and to help the skin heal. You or your caregiver will be given the gel dressings and shown how to put them on. The cancer care team can help with this if needed.

After radiation therapy, you should continue a good skin care routine by keeping skin clean, moisturising regularly and always wearing sunscreen (once any peeling or weeping has healed).

Where can I find support?

If you are worried about your skin during or after radiation therapy, you should speak with your doctor or cancer care team.