A radiation burn is skin damage that results from exposure to radiation, including thermal radiation, ultraviolet radiation, and ionizing radiation. Treating a radiation burn depends on its severity and the cause of the burn. For example, a minor sunburn may not require medical attention, but patients should bring any redness or other symptoms associated with radiation therapy.

What causes radiation burns?

Any source of radiation can cause a radiation burn:

  • Sun exposure (UV radiation)
  • Tanning beds and lamps
  • X-ray and other imaging
  • Radiation therapy
  • Nuclear disaster

The most common source is the sun. Sunburns are radiation burns. Sunburns are one of the most common causes of first-degree burns. Many people do not see sunburns as burns, let alone radiation burns, but sunburns cause skin damage like any other type of burn and severe sunburns require medical attention. Burns from tanning beds and lamps are also radiation burns.

Overexposure to radiation during an X-ray for medical imaging purposes can also cause radiation burns, as can exposure to radiation during radiation therapy for cancer treatment. Burns related to radiation therapy may be the result of insufficient time between treatments, which does not provide skin cells damaged during the therapy enough time to regenerate.

Inform your doctor of any side effects of radiation therapy, including redness indicative of a radiation burn. However, redness at the treatment area – called radiation dermatitis – is common. According to a report in the journal Current Oncology, approximately 85 percent of patients who undergo radiation therapy experience moderate to severe skin reactions.

Other causes of radiation burns are rare and include radioactive fallout after a nuclear explosion and nuclear accidents, such as the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

What are the symptoms and effects of radiation burns?

Common symptoms of radiation burns include:

  • Redness in affected area
  • Swelling
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Blistering or peeling skin

The most serious complication of radiation exposure is the cancer risk. Frequent exposure to radiation, including UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds and lamps, increase the risk of cancer.

Any high-energy ionizing radiation contains sufficient energy to cause damage to DNA. In some cases, this causes mutations that cause cancer. However, the small risks of radiation therapy and imaging tests that uses high-energy radiation (X-rays or CT scans) is usually outweighed by the benefits of such procedures.

Of course, any exposure to radiation energy during a nuclear explosion or disaster also brings with it the risk of cancer.

Can I prevent radiation burns?

Sunburns are preventable with proper skincare and precautions. Avoid sun exposure in the late morning and early afternoon, and always wear sunscreen and clothing that covers your arms and legs when in the sun. Wear a hat with a brim that shades your face and neck too.

Radiation burns related to radiation therapy may be difficult to prevent, but there are certain things you can do that may minimize skin damage. First, talk to your doctor. Ask about steps you can take to minimize skin damage and always ask before using any product on your skin to make sure it does not interfere with your treatment. Here are a few tips that may help reduce skin irritation:

  • Protect skin during radiation therapy. Avoid the sun, do not shave, and do not apply any topical product (including perfume, makeup, or deodorant), without first checking with your doctor.
  • Avoid extreme hot or cold. Do not sit in a hot tub, apply ice packs, use heated pads, or use any other product that exposes the skin to extreme hot or cold.
  • Clean the treatment area. Use a mild soap and warm (not cold and not hot) water. Avoid any soap with perfumes and dyes, and do not use a washcloth or any exfoliating brushes or luffas to clean the area. Apply the soap gently with your hands, and rinse gently.
  • Do not scratch the treatment area. The skin around the treatment site may become itchy. Resist the urge to scratch it. Ask your doctor about other methods of controlling itching.
  • Moisturize the area. But first talk to your doctor to ensure it is okay to apply a moisturizer. Your doctor may recommend certain moisturizers to treat itchy skin too. Ask your doctor about when to apply the moisturizer for the best results.

Avoidance of radiation burns from other sources, such as nuclear disasters or radiation exposure in the workplace, largely involves taking safety precautions, ensuring facilities handling nuclear materials follow all safety regulations, and wearing safety gear to prevent acute and chronic exposure.

How are radiation burns treated?

Treatment for a radiation burn will depend on the cause. In the event of a sunburn, a doctor may recommend applying Aloe vera to the affected area and avoiding sun exposure. In the event of a radiation burn from radiation therapy, talk to your doctor about minimizing any discomfort associated with it.

Any radiation burn that is second-degree or higher requires medical attention. Third-degree burns, fourth-degree burns, and any burn related to nuclear disasters or exposure require emergency medical care. Call 9-1-1 immediately.

Is there anything else I need to know about radiation burns?

While it may not be the case with all radiation burns – such as sunburns or radiation burns from radiation therapy – some radiation burns are the result of another party’s negligence.

For example, while most patients experience radiation burns during radiation therapy, failure to take proper precautions or address symptoms in an appropriate manner could cause more serious reactions. Or failing to take safety precautions at a facility that presents a risk of exposure to ionizing radiation could lead to serious burns and other complications.

If you believe your radiation burn is more than normal side effects of treatment or everyday risks posed by sun exposure, talk to a lawyer about whether you have a valid case to recover damages. Call our lawyer referral specialists at 844-549-8774 for help finding a lawyer.