Coping With Skin and Nail Problems Related to Chemotherapy
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 (IV), may cause the skin over the veins to look darker. 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.
Most of these problems are not serious and you can take care of them yourself. A few need immediate attention. Certain drugs given via 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
Call for emergency medical services right away, if you:
- Have severe difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or feel faint
- Experience extreme swelling or hives on your face, or in your mouth, or eyes
Coping With Skin and Nail Problems
To Manage 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.
To Manage Itching, Dryness, Redness, Rashes, and Peeling
- Use cornstarch instead of powder to help with itching.
- To help avoid dryness, take quick showers or sponge baths. Do not take long, hot baths. Use a moisturizing soap.
- Pat yourself dry after bathing. Do not rub.
- Apply cream and lotion while your skin is still moist.
- Avoid perfumes, colognes, or alcohol-based products.
- Use an oatmeal bath for generalized itching.
To Manage 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 which may mean an infection.
To Manage Sunlight Sensitivity
- Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible, especially between 10 AM-4 PM when the sun's rays are the strongest.
- Use a broad-spectrum (protects against both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen lotion with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect against sun damage. A product such as over-the-counter zinc oxide can block the sun's rays completely.
- Use a lip balm with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Wear long-sleeve cotton shirts, light-colored pants, and hats with a wide brim (particularly if you have hair loss), to block the sun.
- Do not use tanning beds.
Even people with dark skin need to protect themselves from the sun during chemotherapy.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
A guide to chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/chemotherapy/understandingchemotherapyaguideforpatientsandfamilies/understanding-chemotherapy-more-side-effects-skin-and-nail-changes. Updated February 15, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2017.
Chemotherapy and you. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemotherapy-and-you.pdf. Updated June 2011. Accessed November 15, 2017.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed November 15, 2017.
Last reviewed November 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 12/8/2015