What is Radiation Dermatitis?
Radiation dermatitis (RD) is a type of skin cancer caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. RD occurs when the body’s natural defenses are overwhelmed by high levels of radiation. There are two types of radiation dermatitis: acute and chronic. Acute radiation dermatitis results from direct exposure to ionizing radiations such as x-rays or gamma rays; it usually resolves within one week. Chronic radiation dermatitis results from repeated exposure to ionizing radiations over time. It may not resolve until many years later.
The most common forms of radiation dermatitis are burns, which result in blistering and redness, and bone fractures, which cause pain and swelling at the site of injury. Other forms of radiation dermatitis include cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas.
How Common Is Radiation Dermatitis?
RD affects approximately 1 in every 100 people worldwide. RD is the leading cause of cancer deaths among children under 15 years old. Approximately 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with RD since its discovery in 1951. Worldwide there are approximately 30 million cases of RD each year.
What Are the Symptoms of Radiation Dermatitis?
The most common symptoms of acute and chronic radiation dermatitis include pain, loss of sensation in the affected area, loss of skin color, hardening and thickening of skin, dryness and flaking of skin, swelling, redness, open sores and blisters.
Acute Radiation Dermatitis
The most common signs and symptoms of acute RD include erythema (red spots in the skin), dry and cracked skin, ulcerations, skin pain and hair loss.
The signs and symptoms usually show up within the first week of RD exposure. The most common forms of acute RD are burns, which result in blistering and redness, and ulcerations, which cause pain and swelling at the site of injury.
Chronic Radiation Dermatitis
The most common signs and symptoms of chronic RD include dry, flaky, scaly skin that is discolored red or white. Changes in skin color are most commonly the result of blood clots within the skin.
Treatments for Radiation Dermatitis
There is no cure for RD, though treatment options such as pain medication, anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics can help manage certain symptoms. Other treatments may involve the use of protective gear when working with radiation, or the use of special lotions and ointments to decrease skin inflammation and prevent dryness.
Prognosis for Radiation Dermatitis
The outlook for people with radiation dermatitis is usually good when the condition is caught and treated early. If treatment isn’t sought out, it can lead to serious complications such as infection which can cause further tissue damage and even death.
Can You Prevent Radiation Dermatitis?
If you are at risk for or have been diagnosed with RD, it is important to seek protection before being exposed to any sources of ionizing radiation. This may include the use of protective gear such as gloves, safety goggles and aprons.
How Is Radiation Dermatitis Diagnosed?
RD is usually diagnosed by a medical professional after a physical examination.
Tests to determine the extent of damage may be done if the RD is severe. These tests may include blood tests, skin biopsies, or chest x-rays.
In some cases, a person with skin redness will be given a dose of non-radioactive thalidomide by mouth or by vein to see if there is any positive response.
$13 Billion Awarded to Man Who Developed Cancer from Radiation
In March of 2016, a U.S. appeals court upheld an $82 million verdict against TVO nuclear power plant in Ontario, Canada in the case of a man who developed cancer after working there as a maintenance engineer for more than 20 years.
The lawsuit alleged that the worker’s routine use of a radioactive metal while repairing equipment resulted in his exposure to unsafe levels of nickel and chromium, which he breathed in and ingested.
The man’s cancer was found in his blood, bones and lungs. He died in 2013 at the age of 63.
In the original verdict, a jury ruled that the power plant did not provide adequate safety gear or training for handling the metal, which came from an Illinois nuclear plant.
A spokesman for TVO told the Toronto Star at the time that the organization would “vigorously defend against any costs awarded by the court.”
The U.S. appeals court decision was the latest in a series of legal victories for workers who claimed their cancers and other diseases were caused by exposure to toxic substances in the workplace.
Does Radiation Cause Other Health Problems?
Excessive exposure to radiation can lead to an increased risk of cancer, cataracts and other eye problems, organ damage and skin diseases.
It is also possible for someone to be exposed to excessive amounts of radiation and not experience any symptoms until years later when problems such as cancer develop. This is known as a “stubborn” or “slow” burn.
People who are exposed to radiation are also at risk of getting severe sunburn as the radiation can interfere with the formation of protective skin pigment.
Exposure to high levels of radiation can lead to nausea, fatigue, weakness, loss of hair and appetite and eventually coma and death. There is no known antidote for radiation poisoning.
Sources & references used in this article:
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A multicenter randomized trial of breast intensity-modulated radiation therapy to reduce acute radiation dermatitis by JP Pignol, I Olivotto, E Rakovitch… – Journal of Clinical …, 2008 – researchgate.net
Topical corticosteroid therapy for acute radiation dermatitis: a prospective, randomized, double‐blind study by M Schmuth, MA Wimmer, S Hofer… – British Journal of …, 2002 – Wiley Online Library
Prevention and treatment of acute radiation dermatitis: a literature review by M Wickline – Oncology nursing forum, 2004 – insights.ovid.com
Potent corticosteroid cream (mometasone furoate) significantly reduces acute radiation dermatitis: results from a double-blind, randomized study by Å Boström, H Lindman, C Swartling, B Berne… – Radiotherapy and …, 2001 – Elsevier
High rate of severe radiation dermatitis during radiation therapy with concurrent cetuximab in head and neck cancer: results of a survey in EORTC institutes by C Giro, B Berger, E Bölke, IF Ciernik, F Duprez… – Radiotherapy and …, 2009 – Elsevier