What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation on Children?

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation on Children

Cancer cells divide and multiply much faster than many normal cells– and that’s usually how they do their harm. Unchecked cell growth can lead to masses of cancer cells called tumors, or to a scenario where healthy cells are crowded out and can no longer do their jobs efficiently.

Chemotherapy (or “chemo”) and radiation, the two most typical types of cancer treatment, work by damaging these fast-growing cells. But other types of fast-growing healthy cells (such as blood and hair cells) likewise can be damaged in addition to cancer cells, causing adverse responses, or side effects.

Side effects can range from fatigue and flu-like symptoms to loss of hair and blood clotting issues. Due to the fact that it’s hard for physicians to anticipate how a child’s body will react, all kids who have treatment for cancer are extremely carefully kept an eye on. Doctors weigh the amount and seriousness of side effects against the benefits of treatments.

Luckily, most side effects are temporary– as the body’s normal cells recover, these issues gradually go away.

Chemotherapy is a general term for medications used to ruin or stop the development of cancer cells. Your child’s treatment plan will use the best medication or mix of medications readily available to most efficiently fight your child’s particular type and stage of cancer.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation on Children?

What to Expect

Side effects differ from child to child: Some can be merely undesirable, while others can be much more major; some show up right now, while others develop over time; and some kids have simply a few, while others have many during treatment.

Chemo and radiation produce similar side effects. Chemo’s side effects depend upon the type of drug used, the dosage, and a child’s overall health. These effects are more likely to affect the entire body.

Radiation’s side effects, on the other hand, tend to be more limited to the area that is being dealt with. Nevertheless, they do still depend upon the dose of radiation offered, the area on the body, and whether the radiation was internal or external.

Here are a few of the side effects related to these cancer treatments, and how to handle them:


This is the most common side effect of both chemotherapy and radiation. Even the most active kids are likely to discover themselves tired and perhaps even a little “foggy-headed” during treatment– and potentially for a while later. This is typical. Encourage your child to scale back on activities and to rest as much as possible. As soon as treatment is over, your child’s energy must return.

Flu-like Symptoms

Some cancer medications appear to trigger the body’s normal inflammatory action, producing influenza- or cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, chills, and cough. Drinking plenty of fluids can help clear excess mucus. Likewise ask your doctor which, if any, over the counter medicines might be useful.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation on Children


Some chemo drugs are known to cause headaches, muscle pains, stomach pains, or even temporary nerve damage, which can lead to burning, numbness, or tingling in the hands and feet. If this occurs, your doctor can prescribe medications that can help. Never ever use non-prescription or organic medicines without your doctor’s permission, however, considering that these can engage with the chemo drugs.

Mouth, Gum, and Throat Sores

Both chemo and radiation (particularly to the head and neck) can result in mouth sores, sensitive gums, an irritated throat, and an increased risk of dental caries. The doctor may recommend a mouth rinse to decrease irritation. Soft, cool foods may be simpler to eat, and high-acid foods and juices (like oranges or tomatoes) ought to be avoided. Routine dental examinations are essential too.

Intestinal Issues

Numerous types of chemo drugs are understood to cause nausea, vomiting, anorexia nervosa, constipation, or diarrhea. Medications are available to avoid or minimize a lot of these symptoms. It’s also common for kids to discover that their taste choices change while on chemo (they can’t tolerate specific smells or textures, for example).

If your child’s appetite wanes, try providing a number of small servings of something instead of three big meals. Likewise focus on keeping your child hydrated with water, juices, and broths.

Intestinal symptoms associated with radiation tend not to be as severe as those brought on by chemo, except in children who get radiation to the hips or abdominal area.

Skin Modifications

Chemo drugs commonly cause rashes, redness, and other types of skin inflammation– particularly if your child has actually had radiation prior to the chemo (this is called “radiation recall”). Radiation alone can cause comparable symptoms, in addition to blisters, peeling, and swelling, in the area of treatment.

Wearing loose, soft cotton clothes may help with the pain. Your doctor may also suggest or prescribe creams or ointments. Since the afflicted area can be more conscious the sun for a while after treatment, your child must constantly use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 whenever going outdoors.

Weight Modifications

Some kids might experience weight-loss or weight gain. It’s common for those taking steroids to have an increased hunger and put on weight in uncommon places, like the cheeks or back of the neck. Other kids might have decreased cravings or trouble keeping food down (specifically if they’re feeling upset after chemo).

If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, talk with your doctor about how to assist your child keep a healthy weight based on his or her medical needs.

Loss of hair

During chemo, hair thinning and loss of hair might take place all over the body. Radiation therapy to the head and neck may cause loss of hair in that area; nevertheless, radiation anywhere else will not cause the hair on the visit fall out.

Though some kids take hair loss in stride, others find it really terrible. Ensure your child that the hair will grow back– though it might be a slightly different color or texture. In the meantime, numerous kids decide to use baseball hats, bandannas, headscarfs, or wigs.

Prior to treatment, some kids get much shorter haircuts, as it can be less distressing to see shorter strands of hair fall instead of long ones.

Kidney and Bladder Issues

Some chemo drugs are known to be tough on the kidneys, making them less able to operate well. Your child will have frequent blood tests to keep an eye on kidney function. Staying well hydrated can help. Tell the doctor if your child has bloody urine or any issues urinating.


Both chemotherapy drugs and radiation can destroy all types of healthy blood cells and adversely impact the body’s production of brand-new ones. Low levels of red blood cells (RBCs, the cells that carry oxygen) can result in anemia, which causes fatigue, paleness, shortness of breath, and a fast heart beat.

Your child’s blood will be drawn regularly throughout treatment to keep an eye on the levels of these cells. If RBCs are too low, donor cells might be provided through a blood transfusion.

Blood clot Problems

Cells that assist blood to clot, called platelets, are another kind of blood cell that can be affected during cancer treatment, especially chemo. The platelets might be low (a condition called thrombocytopenia that results in bleeding). This may cause a child to have small red spots on the skin, bloody or black defecation or vomit, or bleeding from the nose, gums, or line site (the area where fluids and medications are consistently provided to kids with cancer).

Those with a low platelet count also have to take it easy to minimize the risk of bleeding. That means preventing rough play and contact sports (like football), and brushing with a soft tooth brush and flossing extremely gently. In the most extreme cases of thrombocytopenia, when the platelet count gets too low, a transfusion may be necessary.

Increased Risk of Infection

In addition to RBCs and platelets, white blood cells (WBCs) likewise can be diminished during or after cancer treatment. WBCs called neutrophils assist fight infection and having too few can put a child at increased risk of severe infection, a condition called neutropenia. A fever can be a sign of severe infection and need to be given your doctor’s attention immediately.

Kids with neutropenia have to take special precautions versus bacteria. Like all kids, they should clean their hands prior to consuming, after using the bathroom, and after touching animals. However they also need to avoid crowded indoor locations or going to with buddies or relative who have contagious diseases (such as a cold, the influenza, or chickenpox).

People who have recently received live-virus vaccines, such as measles or oral polio, can pass these infections to kids with low blood cell counts, so it’s also important to avoid contact with them. To avoid food-borne infection, kids with neutropenia shouldn’t eat raw seafood, undercooked meat, or eggs.


Given that their immune systems are jeopardized, kids with cancer (specifically those with neutropenia) are not able to eliminate off bacteria and other germs that go into the body. As a result, a seasonal infection or cold can rapidly develop into a lethal infection.

Signs of infection include fever or chills, coughing or blockage, vomiting or diarrhea, and pain (possibly in the ears, throat, belly, or head, or pain when going to the bathroom). Or there may be redness, swelling, pain, or oozing around the line site.

If your child has any of these symptoms, especially a fever, contact your doctor immediately.

Period of Side Effects

A lot of side effects go away slowly as soon as cancer treatment ends and the healthy cells have a possibility to grow again. How long this process takes usually depends upon a child’s overall health and the types and quantities of drugs and/or radiation he or she got.

Sometimes, nevertheless, cancer treatment can cause permanent modifications to a child’s growing body. These long-lasting side effects (called late effects) can consist of damage to the heart, lungs, brain, nerves, kidneys, thyroid gland, or reproductive organs. Kids might experience concerns such as delayed cognitive advancement, development problems, and infertility. In many cases, those who have actually received specific types of chemotherapy are at greater risk of developing a second type of cancer later on in life.

Before treatment, the doctor will speak with you about your child’s risk of late effects and what precautions can be taken prior to treatment, if any. For example, some kids who undergo treatments with fertility dangers can take preventive steps like egg or sperm conservation.


Cancer treatment has actually come a long way– and today about 85% of children treated for cancer recover. But in the meantime, it can be challenging to help your child cope with the sometimes painful or uncomfortable side effects of treatment. Luckily, doctors use lots of restorative measures to make treatments more bearable for kids.

During treatment, your child is most likely to feel the psychological results of having a severe illness– and this can leave them feeling upset, afraid, unfortunate, or depressed. Answer questions and help describe what’s going on in an age-appropriate method to assist your child deal with these strong emotions and feel more prepared for the challenges ahead.

A healthcare facility support system, child life expert, social employee, or psychologist from the care group also might be able to provide both you and your child convenience during this difficult time.

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