Cancer Treatment Side Effects: Skin and Nails

You may have minor skin problems while you are having chemotherapy, such as redness, rashes, itching, peeling, dryness, acne, and increased sensitivity to the sun. Certain anticancer drugs, when given intravenously, may cause the skin all along the vein to darken, especially in people who have very dark skin. Some people use makeup to cover the area, but this can take a lot of time if several veins are affected. The darkened areas will fade a few months after treatment ends.

Your nails may also become darkened, yellow, brittle, or cracked. They also may develop vertical lines or bands.

While most of these problems are not serious and you can take care of them yourself, a few need immediate attention. Certain drugs given intravenously (IV) can cause serious and permanent tissue damage if they leak out of the vein. Tell your doctor or nurse right away if you feel any burning or pain when you are getting IV drugs. These symptoms do not always mean there is a problem, but they must always be checked at once. Don't hesitate to call your doctor about even the less serious symptoms.

Some symptoms may mean you are having an allergic reaction that may need to be treated at once. Call your doctor or nurse right away if:

  • you develop sudden or severe itching.
  • your skin breaks out in a rash or hives.
  • you have wheezing or any other trouble breathing.

How can I cope with skin and nail problems?

Acne

  • Try to keep your face clean and dry.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse if you can use over-the-counter medicated creams or soaps.

Itching and dryness

  • Apply corn starch as you would a dusting powder.


  • To help avoid dryness, take quick showers or sponge baths. Do not take long, hot baths. Use a moisturizing soap.


  • Apply cream and lotion while your skin is still moist.


  • Avoid perfume, cologne, or aftershave lotion that contains alcohol.


  • Use a colloid oatmeal bath or diphenhydramine for generalized pruritis.

Nail problems

  • You can buy nail-strengthening products in a drug store. Be aware that these products may bother your skin and nails.


  • Protect your nails by wearing gloves when washing dishes, gardening, or doing other work around the house.


  • Be sure to let your doctor know if you have redness, pain, or changes around the cuticles.

Sunlight sensitivity

  • Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest.


  • Use a sun screen lotion with a skin protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher to protect against sun damage. A product such as zinc oxide, sold over the counter, can block the sun's rays completely.


  • Use a lip balm with a sun protection factor.


  • Wear long-sleeve cotton shirts, pants and hats with a wide brim (particularly if you are having hair loss), to block the sun.


  • Even people with dark skin need to protect themselves from the sun during chemotherapy.

For more information about cancer therapy side effects, and coping with them, please read the  "Chemotherapy and Cancer Treatment, Coping with Side Effects" article.

SOURCE: National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov)


Last Editorial Review: 11/11/2002