Chemotherapy Effects on the Integumentary System

Chemotherapy drug treatments are designed to eliminate cancer-forming cells in the body. By destroying these cells, the progression of this disease can be slowed or eliminated altogether. Chemotherapy drugs can vary in strength and method of action. The presence of these drugs in the body can cause adverse effects within integumentary system.

  1. Integumentary System

    • The body's integumentary system is made up of the skin, hair and nails. This system is designed to protect internal tissues and organs, as well as maintain the body's overall temperature. The skin is the primary component in this system, as hair and nail formations are derived from skin cell structures. The integumentary system is also responsible for the body's hydration levels, sensory reception processes, and vitamin D absorption from the sun. The cells that make up this system are in a constant state of regeneration, with old cells dying and new cells forming.


    • Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs designed to target fast-dividing cells in the body. It works by slowing or stopping these cells from reproducing or growing. In some cases, these effects cause damage to nearby cells that are normal and healthy. Chemotherapy drugs are classified as cytotoxic because of their damaging effects. Some of these drugs can actually program individual cells to die in the near future. This programming process is called apoptosis. Mechlorethamine, cycloposhphamide and chorambucil are some of the drugs used in chemotherapy treatment. The effects they have on the integumentary system are considered to be side effects because of the types of cells that are affected.

    Skin Effects

    • Skin problems are a common side effect from chemotherapy treatments. Skin reactions occur because of the way these drugs go about identifying cancerous cells. Chemotherapy treatments target cells that secrete a certain protein, called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). EGFR is what enables cancer cells to multiply so quickly. Skin cells also secrete EGFR. As a result, chemotherapy drugs attack skin cells in much the same way as they attack cancer cells. Skin problems can take form of rashes, or acne that appear on the face, neck, scalp, chest or back. Skin textures may become dry and scaly to the point where cracks appear along the skin's surface.

    Nail Effects

    • The effects of chemotherapy on the nail portions of the integumentary system can vary depending on the type of drug used. Possible effects include swelling and redness to the point of sores forming around the fingernails and toenails. This is most common in the thumb and big toe nails and can appear as ingrown nails. Other possible effects include a yellowing or darkening of the nail color. As the structure of the nails begins to break down, they may become brittle and start to crack. In some cases, ridges can form across the surface of the nail.

    Hair Effects

    • As hair strands grow out of follicles in the skin, chemotherapy effects on the skin eventually affect the condition of the hair. This is a gradual process that can eventually result in total hair loss. Hair strands may appear thin and dry which causes them to become brittle. Facial hair growth may actually increase in response to certain drugs. This reaction is the result of hormonal secretions that place around the mouth and eyes. Individual body chemistry will also play a part in how these drugs affect integumentary system processes.

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