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How It Works

Erlotinib blocks a substance called the epidermal growth factor that helps some cancer cells grow and reproduce. Erlotinib is a medicine that is taken by mouth (oral).

Why It Is Used

Erlotinib slows or stops the growth and spread of cancer cells in the body. It is used to treat non–small cell lung cancer that has spread (metastasized) outside the lung. It is used after a person's cancer has not responded to the chemotherapy medicines that are tried first for non–small cell lung cancer.

How Well It Works

Erlotinib is an effective anti-tumour medicine. But the type and extent of a cancer determines how effectively this medicine slows or stops the growth of cancer cells in the body. Erlotinib works best in people who have changes (mutations) in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR).2

Side Effects

Possible serious side effects of erlotinib include:

  • Allergic reactions. Signs of allergic reaction can include trouble breathing; swelling or closing of the throat; swollen face, tongue, or lips; or hives.
  • Skin problems, including rash and infections.
  • Eye pain or irritation.
  • Severe or ongoing nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

In rare cases, erlotinib can cause a serious lung problem called interstitial lung disease. Immediately report any shortness of breath or cough to your oncologist.

Less serious side effects may include:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Nausea and vomiting (rare).
  • Feeling of weakness.

If a blood thinner (anticoagulant) such as Coumadin is also being taken, blood clotting tests should be watched closely to be sure there is not an increased risk of serious bleeding.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Erlotinib should be administered only under the supervision of a medical oncologist.

Skin rashes are a frequent problem when taking this medicine. Seeing a dermatologist may help. For best results:1, 2

  • Moisturize frequently. Thick emollient creams, such as Aquaphor or Eucerin, work well.
  • Avoid alcohol-based lotions, antibacterial soaps, and long hot showers.
  • Use sunscreen to protect your skin if you are going to be in the sun for an extended time. Use a sunscreen with 30 SPF that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Choose a sunscreen that contains a physical sunblock, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. A non-alcohol-based sunscreen will be less irritating.
  • Avoid acne medicines. Some of these medicines can make the problem worse.

Erlotinib can affect your ability to have children. You may not be able to get pregnant or father a child after taking this medicine. Discuss fertility with your doctor before starting treatment.

Erlotinib can cause birth defects. Do not use this medicine if you are pregnant or wish to become pregnant or to father a child while you are taking it.

Medicines can be used to prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting side effects of chemotherapy.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. National Cancer Institute (2010). New cancer drugs bring new side effects, and nurses respond. NCI Cancer Bulletin, 7(1). Also available online:
  2. Burtness B, et al. (2009). NCCN Task Force Report: Management of dermatologic and other toxicities associated with EGFR inhibition in patients with cancer. Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, (7, Suppl 1): S5–S24.

Other Works Consulted

  • Erlotinib (Tarceva) for advanced non–small cell lung cancer (2005). Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, 47(1205): 25–27.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Michael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
Last Revised July 19, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.