Cetuximab is a type of targeted cancer drug. It is also known by its brand name Erbitux. You might have it as a treatment for advanced bowel cancer and head and neck cancers that start in the mouth and throat.
How cetuximab works
This cancer drug quickly destroys dividing cells, such as cancer cells.
It is a type of monoclonal antibody. Monoclonal antibodies (MABs) are copies of a single antibody. They are made in the laboratory. Monoclonal antibodies seek out cancer cells by targeting particular proteins on the cell surface.
How you have cetuximab
You have cetuximab as a drip into your bloodstream.
Into your bloodstream
You have the treatment through a drip into your arm or hand. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.
You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.
When you have cetuximab
You usually have cetuximab once a week. It takes about 2 hours the first time you have it. If you don’t have any problems, the following treatments take an hour.
How long you have cetuximab depends on your cancer type.
For advanced bowel cancer
You have cetuximab on its own or with other chemotherapy drugs. This usually continues for as long as it is helping you and the side effects aren’t too bad.
For head and neck cancer
You may have cetuximab every week, during your radiotherapy treatment. Or you may have it with chemotherapy, for as long as the treatment is helping you and the side effects aren’t too bad.
You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.
How often and how severe the side effects are can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatment you are having. For example, your side effects could be worse if you are also having other drugs or radiotherapy.
When to contact your team
Your doctor or nurse will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you closely during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:
- you have severe side effects
- your side effects aren’t getting any better
- your side effects are getting worse
We haven't listed all the side effects here. Remember it is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects, but you might have some of them at the same time.
Common side effects
These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (more than 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
Low levels of magnesium in the blood
You might have low levels of magnesium in the body. This can cause muscular weakness and tremors. Your doctor will do regular blood tests to check for this.
You might have liver changes that are usually mild and unlikely to cause symptoms. They usually go back to normal when treatment finishes. You have regular blood tests to check for any changes in the way your liver is working.
You may have some inflammation in the lining of the intestine, mouth and nose. This may cause your nose to bleed.
Mild allergic reaction
A reaction may happen during the infusion, causing a skin rash, itching, swelling of the lips, face or throat, breathing difficulties, fever and chills. Your nurse will give you medicines beforehand to try to prevent a reaction.
More than 8 out of 10 patients (80%) are likely to have a skin reaction with this drug. Some of these reactions are likely to be severe.
Most of these side effects happen in the first 3 weeks of starting treatment and disappear once the treatment is finished.
These side effects include:
- dry skin
- scaling of the skin
- hair growth
- nail changes
Occasional side effects
These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (between 1 and 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- loss of fluid in your body (dehydration)
- decrease in levels of calcium in the blood
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- inflammation of the eye which causes irritation and redness in the eye (conjunctivitis)
- loose or water stools (diarrhoea)
- feeling and being sick
- feeling tired
- severe allergic reaction which can cause breathing difficulties, fainting, blood pressure changes and itchy skin
Rare side effects
These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- a blood clot starting in the deep veins of your body (deep vein thrombosis, DVT) that could possibly travel to your lungs (pulmonary embolism). This could be life threatening if not treated quickly
- a blood clot starting in the lung (pulmonary embolism) which could be life threatening if not treated quickly
- inflammation of the eye lid or front part of the eye. The eye may appear red or swollen
- a severe skin reaction that may start as tender red patches which leads to peeling or blistering of the skin. You might also feel feverish and your eyes may be more sensitive to light. This is serious and could be life threatening
Coping with side effects
We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.
What else do I need to know?
Other medicines, foods and drinks
Cancer drugs can interact with some other medicines and herbal products. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies.
Loss of fertility
It is not known whether this treatment affects fertility in people. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.
Contraception and pregnancy
It is unknown whether treatment may or may not harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or father a child while you are having treatment.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception you can use during treatment. Ask how long you should use it before starting treatment and after treatment has finished.
Don’t breastfeed during this treatment and for 2 months afterwards. The drug may come through in the breast milk.
Treatment for other conditions
Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.
Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.
In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and one of the shingles vaccines called Zostavax.
You can have:
- other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
- the flu vaccine (as an injection)
- the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine - talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best time to have it in relation to your cancer treatment
Members of your household who are aged 5 years or over are also able to have the COVID-19 vaccine. This is to help lower your risk of getting COVID-19 while having cancer treatment and until your
Contact with others who have had immunisations - You can be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections. Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as the oral typhoid vaccine.
If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as this is a live vaccine. This is for 2 weeks following their vaccination.
Babies have the live rotavirus vaccine. The virus is in the baby’s poo for about 2 weeks and could make you ill if your immunity is low. Get someone else to change their nappies during this time if you can. If this isn't possible, wash your hands well after changing their nappy.
More information about this treatment
For further information about this treatment go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.
You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.