Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Radiation therapy to the chest

Radiation treatment to the chest may affect the heart, causing things like hardening of the arteries (which can make you more likely to have a heart attack later on), heart valve damage, or irregular heartbeats. It can also cause swallowing problems, cough, or shortness of breath. Be sure you understand what to look for and tell your doctor or nurse if you notice any of these side effects.

Radiation pneumonitis (new-muh-NI-tis) is inflammation of the lungs caused by radiation treatment to the chest. It may occur from about 6 weeks to up to 6 months after completing external radiation therapy. The risk of developing it depends on the radiation dose, the amount of lung getting radiation, whether you had radiation in the past, and whether you are getting chemo at the same time. It’s also more likely if you have other lung diseases, like COPD.

Common symptoms of radiation pneumonitis include:

  • Shortness of breath that usually gets worse with exercise
  • Chest pain, which is often worse when taking in a deep breath
  • Cough
  • Pink-tinged sputum
  • Low-grade fever
  • Weakness

In some cases, no symptoms are noticed, and radiation pneumonitis is found on a chest x-ray.

Radiation pneumonitis is treated by trying to decrease the inflammation. Steroids, like prednisone, are usually used. With treatment, most people recover without any lasting effects. But if it goes untreated or persists, it can lead to pulmonary fibrosis (stiffening or scarring of the lungs). When this happens, the lungs can no longer fully inflate and take in air. If a large area of the lungs is treated with radiation, these changes can cause shortness of breath, especially during physical activity.


Last Medical Review: 05/02/2014
Last Revised: 05/02/2014