Many people who are going through cancer treatment experience problems with itchy skin. This post explains why cancer causes itchy skin and provides practical tips to help reduce the impact on your life…

Itching, or pruritis, is a common side effect of cancer. It can have a number of causes, including the cancer itself, treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, as well as allergies or infections. Itchy skin can be very uncomfortable and irritating, but there are ways to help alleviate the symptoms.

Cancer related itchy skin can affect the whole body, or particular parts of the body. Problems with itchy skin can cause restlessness, problems with sleeping, and low mood, while scratching the skin can lead to soreness and infection.

The good news is, there are steps you can take to make life more comfortable.

How can cancer itself cause itching?

Some cancers, including some cancers of the blood, can cause itchy skin in their own right. While some cancers involving the skin can also cause itching, this is not always the case.

Sometimes itchy skin can be caused by the body’s reaction to a tumour, or substances released by the tumour. Often the itching is felt over the whole body, but is worst on the chest or legs. The itching will normally begin to go away when you have treatment.

Why does cancer treatment cause itchy skin?

However, sometimes cancer drugs and treatments can cause itchy skin. The chemicals in chemotherapy can make skin dry, scaly and itchy, while radiotherapy exposes your skin to radiation, making it sore, dry and itchy. Biological and hormone therapies can also cause skin rashes.

Allergic reactions

Sudden or acute itching can sometimes begin when you start a new cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy. This can be a sign of an allergic reaction, and you should talk to your medical team so that they can make any adjustments to your treatment.

You may also find that your skin is more sensitive to certain products, such as washing powder or bathing products, when you are undergoing cancer treatment. It’s advisable to stick to mild, perfume-free products during this time.

Infections and itchy skin

People who have cancer often have a lower immunity, which means they are more likely to catch an infection. Itching can sometimes be a sign of an infection.

Common infections include fungal infections, such as thrush, as well as bacterial or viral infections. If you have an infection, it’s important to contact your doctor for treatment in the first instance.

Liver and kidney issues

Cancer related itchy skin can also be caused by a build-up of toxins in the body as a result of problems with the liver or kidneys.

Some forms of cancer, including those involving the liver, gall bladder and pancreas, can cause jaundice. This can lead to a build-up of bile in your body, making your skin yellow and itchy.

If this happens, you should contact your doctor. They can run tests to check how your liver and kidneys are functioning.


How can I deal with itchy skin caused by cancer?

There are lots of things you can do to help counteract problems with itchy skin caused by cancer and its treatment:

  • Keep hydrated – you should aim to drink plenty of water every day. This will help to flush out any toxins and keep your skin healthy and hydrated
  • Moisturise regularly – take care of your skin by regularly applying a skin cream or oil, such as Defiant Beauty Itchy Skin Oil. This will keep your skin hydrated and will form a protective barrier to prevent it from drying out and becoming itchy
  • Take care when bathing – opt for lukewarm rather than hot water, and choose an aqueous cream instead of soap. Use a soft, absorbent towel to gently pat your skin until it is dry, and follow up with a good dose of moisturiser
  • Avoid harsh chemicals –  cosmetics, detergents and other household cleaning products can be full of chemicals. Mild, unperfumed products containing natural ingredients are kinder to irritated skin:

“Avoid everything that is laden with chemicals. Find cosmetics, shampoo, soap and cleaning products that are free from particular nasties.”
Hazel, Live Better With community member

  • Resist scratching – this may be easier said than done, but scratching can cause the skin to swell, bleed and become infected. If you feel the need to scratch, try massaging the area, or applying ice or a cool pack for some relief
  • Avoid extremes of temperature – extreme heat or cold can irritate your skin, so stay in the shade on a sunny day and use some good quality sun protection, such as Caribbean Blue Sunscreen, and make sure you wrap up when it’s cold
  • Don’t lose your head – if you have hair loss as a result of chemotherapy, you may find that your scalp is sensitive and itchy. Using an exfoliating sponge can help to remove dry, flaky skin. Follow up with some gentle moisturiser. If your scalp feels sore or irritated, try applying a soothing scalp spritz
  • Seek medical advice – if the itching becomes worse, or if your skin becomes very red and sore, you should contact your doctor. They may be able to prescribe medication, such as antihistamines to reduce allergic reactions, anti-depressants to help with paresthesia (a form of chemotherapy related nerve damage which can lead to itchy skin), or steroids to help reduce inflammation and swelling

How can I sleep better with itchy skin?

When your skin is itchy and irritated, it can be difficult to get to sleep. Here are some tips to help you to get a better night’s rest:

    • Get the atmosphere right – make sure your bedroom offers a comfortable environment for sleeping, and is not too hot or too cold
    • Go natural – choose comfortable, lightweight clothes and bedlinen made from natural fibres. The Live Better With community recommend bamboo bedding and pyjamas, which are soft, breathable and hypoallergenic, and draw moisture away from the skin
    • Be mindful  – many people find that practising some gentle meditation or mindfulness exercises can help them to relax ready for sleep.  The Little Book of Mindfulness offers some simple and effective techniques
    • Soothe away those blues – try using some relaxing aromatherapy oils, in the form of a lavender spray or a sleep balm. The Live Better With community recommend Badger Sleep Balm and Cotswold Lavender Slumber Spray.

Read the Live Better With guide to cancer and sleeping better here.

 

Itchy skin can be a very uncomfortable side effect of cancer. However, by taking some simple steps and looking after your skin you can help to reduce the effects and live better.

Do you have any tips for coping with itchy skin? Share your experiences and learn from others in the Live Better With cancer community.

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