Erlotinib (Tarceva)

Erlotinib is a type of targeted cancer drug. It is also known as Tarceva.

You pronounce erlotinib as er-loh-tih-nib.

It is a treatment for:

  • non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that has spread (advanced)
  • advanced pancreatic cancer  – alongside the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine

You might also have erlotinb as part of a clinical trial for another type of cancer. 

How does erlotinib work?

Erlotinib is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) Open a glossary item which is a type of cancer growth blocker. It blocks proteins on cancer cells that encourage the cancer to grow.

These proteins are called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR) Open a glossary item. If you have a cancer that has these receptors you are EGFR positive. You have tests on your cancer cells to check for these receptors before you have this treatment.

Erlotinib can help shrink the cancer or stop it growing for a time. 

How do you have erlotinib?

Erlotinib is a tablet. You take it once a day, at least 1 hour before eating, or 2 hours after eating.

Taking your tablets

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

Speak to your pharmacist if you have problems swallowing the tablets.

Whether you have a full or an empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, no more or less.

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

How often do you have erlotinib?

You continue taking erlotinib for as long as it is still working and the side effects aren't 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 erlotinib?

Side effects can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatments you're having. 

When to contact your team

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you 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. 

Contact your advice line immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C.

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 healthcare team can tell you what products you can use on your skin to help.

Less commonly you might have cracked skin (skin fissures),swelling around the fingernails, infection in the hair follicles, or acne. 

Increased risk of getting an infection

Increased risk of getting an infection is due to a drop in white blood cells. Symptoms include a change in temperature, aching muscles, headaches, feeling cold and shivery and generally unwell. You might have other symptoms depending on where the infection is.

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. You should contact your advice line urgently if you think you have an infection. 

Lowered appetite and weight loss

You might not feel like eating and may lose weight. Eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day can be easier to manage. You can talk to a dietitian if you are concerned about your appetite or weight loss. 

Sore mouth

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

Breathlessness and cough

You might develop a cough or breathing problems. This could be due to infection, such as pneumonia or inflammation of the lungs (pneumonitis). 

Let your doctor or nurse know straight away if you suddenly become breathless or develop a cough.

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.

Rarely your liver may stop working properly.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. It might help to avoid fatty or fried foods, eat small meals and snacks and take regular sips of water. Relaxation techniques might also 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 treat it once it has started.

Numbness or tingling in fingers and toes

Numbness or tingling in fingers or toes is often temporary and can improve after you finish treatment. Tell your healthcare team if you're finding it difficult to walk or complete fiddly tasks such as doing up buttons. 

Headaches

Tell your healthcare team if you keep getting headaches. They can give you painkillers to help.

Depression

Tell your doctor or nurse if you’re feeling depressed. They can arrange for you to talk to someone and give treatment if necessary.

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue)

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) can happen during and after treatment. Doing gentle exercises each day can keep your energy up. Don't push yourself, rest when you start to feel tired and ask others for help.

Tummy (abdominal) pain

Tell your treatment team if you have this. They can check the cause and give you medicine to help. 

Indigestion

Contact your doctor or pharmacist if you have indigestion or heartburn. They can prescribe medicines to help.

Passing wind (flatulance)

You may pass more wind than usual. 

High temperature (fever)

If you get a high temperature, let your healthcare team know straight away. Ask them if you can take paracetamol to help lower your temperature.

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.

Eye problems 

You might have eye problems including feeling gritty, burning, itchy, sore, red, itchy, dry, watery and sticky. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have this. They can give you eye drops or other medication to help.

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:

  • nosebleeds or you might have blood in your poo (it may look dark or black)

  • changes to how your kidneys work - you will have regular blood tests to check for this

  • hair thinning or hair loss

  • your skin might develop darker patches (hyperpigmentation)

Rare side effects

This side effects happens in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%).

  • a hole in the stomach or bowel

  • you might notice you have more hair growth in different areas of the body

  • soreness, redness or peeling on hands or soles of the feet (palmar plantar syndrome)

  • high levels of protein in urine – you might have urine tests to check for this

  • your nails becoming brittle and loose

  • 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

  • lung changes which might cause breathlessness or cough

  • liver failure

  • your eyelashes may grow inwards or grow longer

  • ulcers on your eye

Coping with side effects

We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.

What else do you need to know?

Other medicines, foods and drink

Cancer drugs can interact with medicines, herbal products, and some food and drinks. We are unable to list all the possible interactions that may happen. An example is grapefruit or grapefruit juice which can increase the side effects of certain drugs.

Tell your healthcare team about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies. Also let them know about any other medical conditions or allergies you may have.

Smoking

Try not to smoke during treatment as it can lower the amount of this drug in your blood.

Pregnancy and contraception

This drug may harm a baby developing in your womb. It is important not to become pregnant or get someone pregnant while you are having treatment with this drug and for at least 2 weeks afterwards.

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

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.

Breastfeeding 

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment and for 2 weeks after your last dose, because the drug may come through into your breast milk.

Treatment for other conditions

Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment. For example, 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. Sometimes people who have had the live shingles vaccine can get a shingles type rash. If this happens they should keep the area covered.

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 and possible side effects go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website. You can find the patient information leaflet on this website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

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