Completing breast surgery is a significant milestone on the path of breast cancer treatment, but experiencing unexpected symptoms during recovery is common. One of the most common is itching. One MyBCTeam member shared, “I had a DIEP [deep inferior epigastric perforator] flap reconstruction. My skin itches between my breast mounds, not close to my scars, though. It kinda reminds me of how skin itches after a sunburn.”
Although itching is usually a normal part of the healing process, there are times when it’s a cause for concern. Here are some ways to decide if you need to check in with your plastic surgeon, along with some ways to manage itching at home.
One MyBCTeam member noted that they experienced itching for years after surgery: “I had itching on and off and still get it. It’s a weird sensation. I’m almost four years post my bilateral surgery. I tried diphenhydramine (Benadryl) once to help with the itching, and it did.”
Healing after lumpectomy, mastectomy, or reconstruction is a complex process that involves repairing and regenerating tissue. Factors such as your skin’s moisture level and pH level (acidity) may also contribute to itchiness.
In response to surgery, the immune system releases chemicals called histamines. Histamines can trigger itching sensations by interacting with nerve endings in the skin.
Additionally, the formation of scar tissue can contribute to itching. When the body heals, collagen fibers are laid down to repair the incisions. This process can cause itchiness as the new tissue matures. The nerves also need to grow back or regenerate over time, which can produce tingling or itching.
Itching may be a sign of nerve damage from breast surgery. Surgical procedures, especially those involving nerve manipulation or repositioning, can disrupt the normal functioning of nerve fibers. This disruption can cause altered nerve responses in the surgical area. While nerve-related itching may persist for an extended period, it often improves as nerves become restored.
Itching after breast surgery can also stem from an allergic reaction known as contact dermatitis, an itchy rash that develops when your skin comes into contact with something you’re allergic to or that irritates your skin. Your skin may react this way to contact with bandages, tape, or other medical supplies used during or after surgery. Signs of contact dermatitis include discoloration, rash, and intense itching. Notably, researchers have found that people rarely develop skin rashes from mastectomy, with or without reconstruction.
Some MyBCTeam members recalled having reactions to adhesives after surgery. “I had a lumpectomy. … I do have aches and feel soreness, but most of all, I had a reaction to the bandage they used on me, including itching, redness, and soreness,” said one member.
Another shared, “I got something like Bactine, with lidocaine in it. I sprayed it on my fingers and then dabbed it on the spot. This helped me for sure. I also got Neosporin for pain or itch which also helped.”
In addition, pain medications prescribed after breast surgery may cause itching as a side effect.
If you suspect an allergic reaction, consult your medical team to find out what’s causing the problem and come up with treatment options.
The skin in the surgical area may become sensitive and dry during the breast cancer treatment, leading to itching. Also, the surgical incisions and surrounding skin can get irritated from friction. Clothing, bras, or surgical dressings can trigger itching and burning sensations.
Fortunately, itching after breast surgery is typically temporary. How long it lasts varies from person to person. Factors like how extensive your surgery was, how well your body heals, and how sensitive you are to itching can impact your experience. Most MyBCTeam members report their itching peaks within the first few weeks after surgery and gradually subsides. Mild sensations may persist for longer.
You can manage some itching at home by taking care to:
One MyBCTeam member shared, “Last night, I had terrible itching inside my breast on the TRAM [transverse rectus abdominis muscle] side. I thought I’d go crazy. I took Benadryl, tried meditating, etc. Nothing helped until I applied an ice pack. It took a while, but it fixed the problem.”
Another shared, “Ice is a godsend for itching when Benadryl doesn’t work. I sleep with an ice pack on my implant until they figure out why it’s still itching this far out.”
Even if you can manage the itchy sensations with ice packs or over-the-counter products, it’s important to inform your health care team about your symptoms and ask for medical advice before treating yourself at home.
If home remedies fail to alleviate itching, or if it worsens over time, you should talk to your doctor. Also, don’t hesitate to contact your health care provider if you experience any signs of infection, such as a fever, chills, painful swelling, skin discoloration, or discharge. They can assess your specific case, rule out any complications, and recommend appropriate interventions such as topical medications or anti-itch creams, antihistamines, or alternative treatments. Itching can significantly impact your ability to sleep and feel comfortable. Seek relief to help improve your quality of life after surgery.
On MyBCTeam, the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones, more than 65,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their tips with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Did you experience itching after breast cancer surgery or reconstruction? Do you have any tips to manage severe itching or other symptoms during the healing process? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.