Side effects from radiation therapy to the chest

During radiation therapy to the chest, you may experience different short-term side effects.

What are the possible short-term side effects?

Radiation therapy to the chest may cause a number of short-term side effects. However, everyone is different and you’re unlikely to experience all of the same side effects as someone who is receiving the same treatment as you.

If you’re concerned about any side effects during your radiation therapy treatment to the chest, we encourage you to speak with your care team who can help you with strategies to manage your side effects.

Types of short-term side effects

Skin reaction

Two to three weeks after your treatment begins, your skin may become red, itchy or irritated. Towards the end of treatment, the skin reaction can become more intense however usually returns to normal four to six weeks after treatment finishes.

Your nurses will show you how to care for your skin and manage any skin reactions. Tell your nurse if you’re worried about a skin reaction or are experiencing any skin changes.


It’s common to have a cough associated with a lung tumour itself, or related to an infection of the lungs. It’s also possible to develop a cough as a side effect of radiation therapy to the chest. Depending on the cause, your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant, humidified air or other medication to help manage a cough.

Difficulty swallowing

Difficulty swallowing is a common reaction when the oesophagus is in the treatment area. As a result of inflammation of the oesophagus, this can feel painful when swallowing or produce a sensation like a lump in the throat. If you experience discomfort or notice any changes, let your care team know as soon as possible. Early measures can control and relieve these symptoms. Our nursing team will monitor your weight, and if required, you may be referred to a dietitian.


You may feel tired or lack energy for daily activities during your treatment. You may feel increasingly tired as you reach the end of your treatment. This is a common reaction to radiation therapy and each person is usually affected to varying degrees. Fatigue usually eases a few weeks after treatment finishes. Finding a balance between rest and activity will help you manage daily life.

Shortness of breath

Radiation therapy to the chest area may cause some inflammation of your lungs. This inflammation may cause you to become short of breath. Please report any breathing changes to your nursing team.

Pain and discomfort

We will provide you with information to help control any pain or discomfort you may be experiencing. If required your doctor will also prescribe pain relief to help control any pain.

Pain flare

Radiation therapy to bone areas can cause a temporary increase in pain in the area being treated. It can occur after one dose of radiation and usually lasts for 12 to 36 hours. Let us know as soon as possible if you experience a pain flare, as we can control this with the use of additional pain medication.

How can I manage skin changes?

Moisturise twice a day

Your care team will recommend a cream to help manage any skin changes. At the start of your treatment, apply cream to the area being treated twice a day. As treatment progresses, you may need to apply the cream three to four times per day. Do not apply cream within the hour prior to your treatment, as cream needs to be well absorbed. Let your nursing team know if you continue to experience skin changes.

Wash with warm water and pat dry

You may wash the skin that is being treated with warm water and a mild non-perfumed soap. Pat dry the skin – do not rub.

Avoid excessive temperatures

Avoid exposing the treatment area to excessive temperature including direct sunlight, heat packs, ice packs, saunas or hot spas during the course of your radiation therapy. Do not use talcum powder or sunscreen in the treatment area.

Wear loose fitting clothing

Avoid wearing tight fitting clothing that could potentially rub or irritate the skin. You may find singlets, cotton ‘crop-tops’ or loose fitting bras more comfortable. Avoid underwire or lace bras.


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