Help- Advice - Information

Common Radiotherapy Side Effects

Side effects caused by radiotherapy treatment vary greatly, depending on the area being treated, the number of treatments and the actual radiation dose your Oncologist has prescribed. In this article we have written about commonly experienced general radiotherapy side effects. In our Beneficial Products section we have suggested some methods of managing these effects.

Side effects can be split into 2 main categories : -

  • Short term effects
  • Long term effects
Short term effects may be experienced during or straight after your radiotherapy course, and long term effects can occur months or even years after the completion of radiotherapy treatment.

These effects will be explained at length to you during your
initial consultation with your doctor and you'll have a further opportunity to discuss them on your visit to the radiotherapy department.

Below are some of the short term side effects that you may expect if you are having more than one
radiotherapy treatment. The degree to which that you will experience them depends on several factors including the amount of radiation prescribed, the area being treated, the number of times you need to visit the department and your general level of health and fitness. In the Cancers section of the website, we will have more specific advice for different treatment areas.


Tiredness often occurs in patients who are having radiotherapy treatment and is caused by many factors. The 2 main ones seem to be from the treatment itself and also traveling back and forth to the hospital each day.

  • Tiredness caused by the radiotherapy treatment itself, is thought to be due in part to the type of toxins released during the breakdown of some of the cells within the treatment area. Drinking fluids to keep hydrated, appears to help flush these toxins out of your system. Eating regularly throughout the day, and not missing meals, will also help to maintain your energy levels.
  • The commute to the hospital is a necessary evil and mobile treatment machines are not possible because of the lead lined bunkers they need to be stored in. However, the radiographers should be able to alter your treatment times so they best suit your needs. It is important to listen to your body and rest when necessary.

nother thing to mention about tiredness, is that it's not generally a problem that hits you out of the blue. Radiotherapy is accumulative and therefore if you are going to get tired it is likely to gradually build up and be at its most noticeable towards the end of your treatment and for a few weeks after your radiotherapy course has actually finished, as the radiation will still be working. Listen to your body and it will tell you when you need to slow down a little. Some people go through the whole radiotherapy treatment and get little or no fatigue - whereas others experience greater tiredness.

Skin Reactions

Most patients will notice a
reddening / darkening of the skin within the treatment area, this is called erythema. This reddening is sometimes likened to a mild sunburn. You may hear horror stories about “radiation burns” and” peeling skin” – most of these are highly exaggerated to enhance the story for the teller. That being said there are some occasions for example when the doctor wishes to treat close to the skin’s surface. In these instances the reddening may be worse, but you will have been informed about this in the initial consultation. Most patient's will only have a very mild reaction if they follow the below advice.

You can help reduce
skin reactions by looking after your skin. It is clear that skin that is well looked after has fewer side effects than skin that is not.

During your
radiotherapy treatment you should keep your skin well moisturised, and regularly apply (2-3 times per day) a pure water based moisturiser such as Aqueous Cream or E45.

Be very gentle when
washing the area being treated with radiotherapy. Only use tepid water and avoid perfumed soaps. You should also tap the area dry and not rub excessively. Aloe Vera gel that is at least 99% pure may prevent soreness and also help the skin to recover more quickly.

If the area that you are having treated is normally covered by
clothing, then wearing lose soft materials, such as cotton and silk, that do not rub will also be beneficial. Most medical staff would recommend that you avoided using chlorinated pools while you are on radiotherapy treatment and for a few weeks afterwards, until any skin reaction has settled. Chlorine dries the skin and is likely to irritate the area unnecessarily.

Skin in the
treatment area will become sensitive, and needs protecting from the sun or cold winds, as even short periods of exposure to the elements will increase the reddening of the skin. If possible try to cover the radiotherapy treatment area, with clothing or a hat.

sun cream to the area, whilst still on radiotherapy treatment, is defiantly not advisable, as the chemicals may react with the treatment, worsening your reaction. Even after your treatment has finished the skin in that area will always be more sensitive to the sun – especially in the first 12 months or so. If the skin has healed then using a high factor sun screen can be an option, but covering the area if possible is still the best advice.

If you follow this advice then you have done all you can to reduce possible general
radiotherapy side effects.

Reviewed: March 2015