Gefitinib (Iressa)

Gefitinib is pronounced jeh-fit-ih-nib. It is also known as Iressa.

Gefitinib is a treatment for non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that has spread into the surrounding tissues (locally advanced) or to other parts of the body.

How does gefitinib work?

Gefitinib is a type of targeted cancer drug Open a glossary item called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI). Tyrosine kinases Open a glossary itemare proteins that sends signals telling cancer cells to grow. Gefitinib bocks these signals. 

For gefitinib to work the cancer cells need to have receptors for a protein called epidermal growth factor Open a glossary item (EGFR). Your doctor will test the cancer cells for this. 

How do you have gefitinib?

Gefitinib is a tablet. You swallow it whole with a glass of water. You can take it with or without food

If you have difficulty swallowing tablets, you can dissolve gefitinib in half a glass of still water. Don’t use any other type of liquid.

Drop the tablet into the half glass of water without crushing it. Stir it occasionally for up to 20 minutes until the tablet has broken up into very small particles. Drink it straight away. Fill the glass to half way again with water and drink it to make sure you take the whole dose.

Taking your tablets

You must take tablets according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Talk to your healthcare team before you stop taking or miss a dose of a cancer drug.

How often do you have gefitinib?

You take gefitinib once a day. You usually carry on taking it for as long as it is still working unless the side effects get too bad.

Tests

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.

What are the side effects of gefitinib?

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, nurse, or pharmacist 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
Early treatment can help manage side effects better.

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:

Skin changes

Skin problems include a skin rash, dry skin and itching. This usually goes back to normal when your treatment finishes. Your nurse will tell you what products you can use on your skin to help.

You should avoid going out in strong sunlight and use SPF 30+ sun cream when you do go out. 

Diarrhoea

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea, such as if you've had 4 or more loose watery poos (stools) in 24 hours. Or if you can't drink to replace the lost fluid. Or if it carries on for more than 3 days.

Your doctor may give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment. Eat less fibre, avoid raw fruits, fruit juice, cereals and vegetables, and drink plenty to replace the fluid lost.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. Avoiding fatty or fried foods, eating small meals and snacks, drinking plenty of water, and relaxation techniques can all help.

It is important to take anti sickness medicines as prescribed even if you don’t feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness rather than treating it once it has started.

Sore mouth and ulcers

Mouth sores and ulcers can be painful. It helps to keep your mouth and teeth clean, drink plenty of fluids, avoid acidic foods such as oranges, lemons and grapefruits, and chew gum to keep the mouth moist. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have ulcers.

Loss of appetite

You might lose your appetite for various reasons when you are having cancer treatment. Sickness, taste changes or tiredness can put you off food and drinks.

Liver changes

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.

Tiredness and feeling weak (fatigue)

You might feel very tired and as though you lack energy.

Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.

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:

  • an increased risk of bleeding such as a nose bleed or blood in the urine
  • dry, brittle or loose nails during treatment. The skin around the nails and the nail beds might get infected causing swelling and redness.
  • inflammation of the bladder causing pain when passing urine and need to pass urine often
  • kidney problems that don't usually cause any symptoms
  • high temperature - fever
  • eye problems such as red, itchy, sore dry eyes or blurred vision
  • sore, red eyelids or ingrown eyelashes
  • thinning of your hair
  • lung problems causing shortness of breath and coughing
  • not enough water in your body (dehydration) caused by diarrhoea, being sick or loss of appetite
  • an allergic reaction causing itching, rash or swelling tell your doctor if this happens
  • protein in your urine (proteinuria)

Rare side effects

This side effects happens in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • inflammation of the pancreas - symptoms might include severe tummy pain, feeling or being sick, a high temperature or you may have loose poo
  • a hole in the stomach or bowel
  • inflammation of the liver
  • 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
  • inflammation of your blood vessels in the skin – symptoms can vary depending on which blood vessels are affected - general symptoms include feeling very tired, loss of appetite, weight loss, a high temperature, and aches and pains

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, food and drink

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.

Do not take this drug at the same time as antacids and similar drugs. Your doctor or pharmacist will give advice about this.

Lactose intolerance

This drug contains lactose (milk sugar). If you have intolerance to lactose, contact your doctor before taking this medicine.

Breastfeeding

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment because the drug may come through into your breast milk.

Pregnancy and contraception

This treatment might harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or father a child while you're having treatment and for a few months afterwards.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment. Let them know straight away if you or your partner falls pregnant while having treatment.

Loss of fertility

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after treatment with this drug. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.

Men might be able to store sperm before starting treatment. And women might be able to store eggs or ovarian tissue. But these services are not available in every hospital, so you would need to ask your doctor about this.    

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.

Immunisations

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 immune system Open a glossary item recovers from treatment.

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.

Last reviewed: 
04 Feb 2022
Next review due: 
03 Feb 2025
  • Electronic Medicines Compendium
    Accessed February 2022

  • Gefitinib for the first-line treatment of locally advanced or metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer
    National Institue for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) 2010

  • Influenza vaccines in immunosuppressed adults with cancer
    Noa Eliakim-Raz and others
    Cochrane Database of systematic reviews, 29 October 2013

  • Scottish Medicine Consortium 

    Accessed February 2022

     

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