Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families

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Skin and nail changes

You may have minor skin problems during treatment, including color changes, redness, itching, peeling, dryness, rashes, and acne.

You can take care of most of these problems yourself using these tips:

  • If you develop acne, try to keep your face clean and dry.
  • To help avoid dryness, take quick, warm showers rather than long, hot baths.
  • Apply creams or lotions after bathing, while your skin is still moist.
  • Do not use perfume, cologne, or aftershave lotion. These products often contain alcohol, which can make your skin dry.
  • For itching, try cornstarch.

When given through an IV, certain chemo drugs may darken your skin along the vein. This discoloration will usually fade over time after treatment ends.

Most skin problems are not serious, but a few need to be taken care of right away. For example, certain drugs given through an IV can cause serious, long-term tissue damage if they leak out of the vein. Tell your doctor or nurse right away if you notice swelling or feel any burning or pain near your IV site when you are getting IV drugs. These symptoms don’t always mean there’s a problem, but they should always be checked out right away.

Let your doctor or nurse know right away if you develop sudden or severe itching, if your skin breaks out in a rash or hives, or if you start wheezing or have any other trouble breathing. These symptoms may mean you are having an allergic reaction that needs attention right away.

Some chemo drugs may make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Check with your doctor or nurse about using sunscreen. You may need to completely avoid direct sunlight. Wear long-sleeved cotton shirts, pants, and wide-brimmed hats to block the sun.

Your nails may become darkened, brittle, or cracked, or they may develop vertical lines or bands. Protect your nails by wearing gloves when washing dishes, gardening, or doing other work around the house. Some over-the-counter products might strengthen your nails, but these products may also cause irritation.

Get advice from your doctor if any skin and nail problems don’t respond to your efforts. Be sure to let your doctor know if you have redness, pain, or changes around your cuticles or any other skin problems that you’re worried about.


Last Medical Review: 03/07/2013
Last Revised: 03/07/2013