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Simple gel treatment prevents radiotherapy burns

30 August 2019

PA Hospital Radiation Oncology researchers have proven a novel silicone-based gel dressing, which forms a film over the skin, can prevent burns from radiation therapy in head and neck cancer patients.

The painful side effect called radiation dermatitis causes dry itchy skin in 85 per cent of cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy and a wet open wound similar to burns that require dressings in up to 15 percent of patients.

PA Hospital Professor of Nursing and QUT researcher, Ray Chan, led the successful study of 197 patients with head and neck cancer with the aim of preventing the painful wounds as a common side effect from daily ‘radical’ radiation therapy.

“While radiotherapy has become more and more precise, the radium goes through the skin ‘killing’ the skin cells and affecting the skin’s ability to rejuvenate itself.  This ultimately leads to radiation dermatitis which is a red, itchy and often painful rash,” Professor Chan said.

“Our study found that the silicone-based gel dressing provided an easily applied, invisible barrier to protect the skin by preventing transdermal water loss during radiotherapy.

“This is the first type of non-steroidal cream that has proven effective in reducing burns by keeping the skin well-hydrated and creating a barrier to prevent or minimise radiation dermatitis.”

Professor Chan said the finding could potentially be applied to anyone undergoing radiotherapy.

“We studied patients with head and neck cancers because they are particularly prone to radiation dermatitis.  The skin on the head and neck is in constant movement as the patient goes about their daily life and this means many physical dressings simply fall off and are impossible to provide protection.”

“Also, the head and neck areas are often exposed to the sun which may worsen the burns.”

PAH Radiation Oncologist, Dr Brigid Hickey, said it’s a step in the right direction for patients.

“We are always looking to reduce the side effects of treatment our patients without reducing the chances of a cure,” she said. “This topical treatment is a real win for patients.”

The study, “A single-blind, randomised controlled trial of  a silicone-based film-forming gel dressing for prophylaxis and management of radiation dermatitis in patient with head and neck cancer” was published in the Journal of Radiotherapy and Oncology.

Last updated 14 November 2019
Last reviewed 30 August 2019

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