Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Leg cramps


Itching can keep you awake and cause restlessness, anxiety, skin sores, and infection. Common causes of itching in people with cancer include dry skin, changes in the blood, allergies, side effects of medicines, and chemo or radiation therapy. Other illnesses and certain kinds of cancer can also cause itching.

What to look for

  • Dry, red, rough, flaky skin
  • A yellow color of the skin or of the whites of eyes
  • Rash or bumps
  • Scratch marks
  • Skin sores
  • Scratching without realizing it

What the patient can do

To soothe the skin

  • Apply skin creams with a water-soluble base, such as aloe vera or menthol-based lotion, 2 to 3 times a day, especially after a bath when the skin is damp. Or use calamine lotion (Caladryl®) or witch hazel if they soothe the itching, but note that they can cause dryness. Check with your cancer team if these treatments don’t work.
  • Bathe in warm water instead of hot.
  • Add baking soda, oatmeal (in a cloth or mesh bag), or bath oil to bath water.
  • Wash your skin gently using a mild, unscented soap.
  • Use baking soda instead of deodorant.
  • Avoid using scented or alcohol-based products on the skin (such as powders, after-shaves, or perfumes). Cornstarch-based powders may clump in moist areas and cause irritation.
  • Use an electric razor rather than a blade to avoid cuts and irritation.
  • Change your bed sheets daily.
  • Keep your room cool (60° to 70° F) and well ventilated to avoid sweating.
  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids.
  • Get enough rest. Ask your doctor about antihistamines if itching keeps you awake.

To reduce the desire to scratch

  • Apply cool, wet packs (such as crushed ice in a plastic bag that’s wrapped in a damp towel) to the skin. Remove the pack when it becomes warm, and let your skin dry. Use again as needed.
  • Keep nails clean and short. Wear clean fabric gloves if you scratch without thinking about it.
  • Try rubbing, pressure, cool cloths, or vibration instead of scratching. Avoid breaking the skin. Get gentle massages at night.
  • Wear loose, soft clothing.
  • Distract yourself with music, reading, and the company of others.
  • Take medicines for itching as prescribed by your doctor.

What caregivers can do

  • Try using mild, unscented detergents to wash the patient’s clothes and bedding.
  • If the patient scratches in their sleep, ask them to wear clean cotton gloves that may reduce skin damage.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Has itching that does not go away after 2 or more days
  • Develops a yellowish color of the skin or has urine the color of tea
  • Scratches skin until it’s open or bleeding
  • Has a rash that gets worse after creams or ointments have been applied
  • Has blisters or bright red skin
  • Has foul-smelling drainage or has pus coming from the skin
  • Becomes very anxious and restless (cannot sleep through the night due to itching)
  • Develops hives (itchy white or red welts on the skin), shortness of breath, swelling of the throat or face, or other symptoms of a severe allergic reaction

Last Medical Review: 11/05/2013
Last Revised: 11/05/2013