Skin & Nail Changes

Skin and nail health

Most skin and nail changes resulting from cancer treatment are minor and will get better once you have completed treatment. If you experience any severe redness or blistering, however, you should let your doctor or nurse know immediately.

Rashes and Other Skin Changes

Some types of chemotherapy can cause redness, swelling and blisters on your hands and feet called hand-foot syndrome. Tell your health care team right away if this occurs. This is a serious side effect and may require a delay in treatment. Some biotherapies can cause a rash with an acne-like appearance. Your nurse or doctor will probably recommend a mild, soap-free cleanser and daily application of sunscreen. Do not use over-the-counter products for acne unless your doctor recommends them. In serious cases, steroid creams and antibiotics may be prescribed. Those undergoing treatment with immunotherapy may require steroids and holding treatment.

Radiation therapy can cause skin changes that include redness, dry or peeling skin, itching, blisters, and swelling. Your radiation oncologist and nurse will talk to you about skin care. Be gentle with your skin. Do not use any lotions or creams unless the radiation treatment team recommends them. Do not put anything hot, like a heating pad, or cold, like an ice pack, on the area being treated. Wear soft clothes and use soft sheets made of fabrics like cotton. Some chemotherapy following radiation treatment can cause radiation recall, where skin in the area where you previously had radiation turns red and may blister and peel. Tell your oncologist if you notice this is happening.

Sun Sensitivity

Radiation and certain chemotherapies can make you very sensitive to the sun, even if you have dark skin or do not burn easily. Use sunscreen, hats, or other sun protective clothing. Avoid direct and prolonged exposure during this time. Remember to use sunscreen even during winter months.

Nail Changes

Fingernails and toenails can become dark, turn yellow, or become brittle and cracked due to cancer treatment. The cuticles may become swollen. Notify your health care team if your nails are loose or have fluid or pus under them, or if you have discomfort around the nail.

Coping with Skin & Nail Changes

  • Avoid soaking in hot baths or Jacuzzis, which can dry out your skin. Try showering in lukewarm showers rather than hot showers.
  • Use a moisturizing soap, pat dry after washing and apply cream or lotion while your skin is still damp.
  • Try a colloidal oatmeal bath for itching all over the body.
  • Wear sunscreen, including lip balm with sun protection.
  • Cover your skin as much as possible when you are outside.
  • Never use a tanning bed.
  • Do not bite your nails or wear fake nails.
  • Ask your doctor before you have a manicure/pedicure.
  • Wear gloves when you wash dishes or do household chores.
  • Moisturize your hands and feet frequently. Use moisturizers that do not contain perfumes.
  • If a nail becomes inflamed, talk to your nurse or doctor.
  • Report any new rash to your health care team, even if you are not particularly concerned by its appearance. Viral infections, such as shingles, can appear as a rash and should be treated as quickly as possible in order to prevent complications.