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Your Skin and Nails and Chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of chemotherapy. It also depends on how much was given. You can anticipate and manage the side effects. This can help to minimize them and provide the best possible experience while receiving chemotherapy.

Side effects on the skin and nails

Your personal medical profile and diagnosis is different than anyone else. So is your reaction to treatment. You may have severe, mild, or no side effects at all. Talk with your cancer care team about possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

Chemotherapy can affect both the skin and nails. It may cause the following symptoms:

Skin

  • Sensitivity to the sun

  • Redness

  • Rash

  • Itchiness

  • Peeling

  • Dryness

  • Acne

Nails

  • Darkness

  • Yellowing

  • Brittle

  • Cracking

  • Develop vertical lines or ridges

Sometimes, chemotherapy given by IV causes the skin covering the vein to darken. This happens more often in people who have very dark skin. Cosmetics or makeup may be used to cover the darkened area, but this can take a lot of time if more than one vein is affected. After treatment ends, the darkened areas often fade over time.

Although some side effects can be self-managed, others need immediate medical attention. If you are getting IV medicine, report any burning or pain to your doctor right away. Sometimes, IV medicines can leak out of the vein and possibly cause tissue damage. These symptoms need to be reported to your doctor or nurse right away.

Other skin and nail symptoms may indicate an allergic reaction. Tell your doctor or cancer care team right away if you develop the following:

  • Sudden or severe itching

  • Rash 

  • Hives

  • Wheezing

  • Trouble breathing

How can I manage skin and nail problems?

The following is recommended for reducing your skin and nail problems related to chemotherapy.

Acne

  • Keep your face clean and dry.

  • Talk with your doctor about the use of any over-the-counter medicated creams or soaps before using them.

Itching and dryness

  • Apply cornstarch like you would a dusting powder.

  • Take quick showers or sponge baths, not long, hot baths. Use a mild, moisturizing soap.

  • Pat skin dry instead of rubbing it.

  • Apply cream or lotion to your skin while it is still moist.

  • Shave less often or stop shaving if it irritates your skin.

  • Avoid perfume, cologne, or aftershave lotions that contain alcohol.

Nail problems

  • Avoid nail-strengthening products as they may bother your skin and nails.

  • Keep nails clean and short.

  • Check with your cancer care team before getting a manicure.

  • Wear gloves when doing housework or working in the garden.

  • Call your doctor if you notice redness, pain, or changes around the cuticles.

Sensitivity to the sun

  • Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible, and especially stay out of the sun between the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest. Even if you have dark skin, protect yourself from the sun.

  • Use a sunscreen lotion with an SPF of 15 or higher. Zinc oxide, sold over the counter, can block the sun's rays completely.

  • Use a lip balm with a high sun protection factor.

  • Wear long-sleeve cotton shirts, pants, and hats with a wide brim to prevent your skin and scalp from sunburn.

If you develop a rash or have sudden severe itching, call your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare providers what other symptoms require an immediate call to the office. Try to remember that as difficult as skin and nail problems can be, most do go away after treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: Levin, Mark, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/23/2015
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