Erlotinib (Tarceva®)

OncoLink Team
Last Modified: September 28, 2015

Pronounced: er-LOE-ti-nib
Classification: Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor

About Erlotinib

Erlotinib is a small molecule drug that inhibits tyrosine kinase, an enzyme associated with the human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR). By inhibiting this enzyme, erlotinib prevents EGFRs from stimulating the uncontrolled growth of cells that contributes to tumor growth.

How to Take Erlotinib

Erlotinib comes as a tablet to take by mouth. It is usually taken on an empty stomach once a day, at least 1 hour before or 2 hours after eating a meal or snack. Take erlotinib at around the same time every day. Take the tablet whole, do not break, crush or chew.

The blood levels of this medication can be affected by certain foods and medications, so they should be avoided. These include: grapefruit, grapefruit juice, verapamil, ketoconazole, rifampin, phenytoin, St. John’s wort, and modafanil. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about all medications and supplements you take.

The levels of this medication can also be affected by medications used to treat heartburn. Do not take proton pump inhibitors (omeprazole, Nexium, Protonix, Prevacid) while on erlotinib. If you need to take an H2 blocker (tagamet, zantac, pepcid), these should be taken 10 hours before and 2 hours after erlotinib (for example, take erlotinib at 8am, take tagamet at 10am & 10pm). If you need to take antacids (Rolaids, tums), separate these from the erlotinib by several hours.

The blood levels of this medication can also be impacted by cigarette smoking.  Be sure to inform your healthcare provider if you are currently smoking, or if you quit smoking while taking this medication, as the dose you receive may need to be adjusted.

Storage and Handling     

Store this medication at room temperature in the original container. If you prefer to use a pillbox, discuss this with your oncology pharmacist. Ask your oncology team where to return any unused medication for disposal. Do not flush down the toilet or throw in the trash.

Where do I get this medication?

Erlotinib is available through select specialty pharmacies. Your oncology team will work with your prescription drug plan to identify an in-network specialty pharmacy for distribution of this medication and shipment directly to your home. 

Insurance Information

This medication may be covered under your prescription drug plan. Patient assistance may be available to qualifying individuals without prescription drug coverage.  Co-pay cards, which reduce the patient co-pay responsibility for eligible commercially (non-government sponsored) insured patients, are also available. Your care team can help you find these resources, if they are available.

Possible Side Effects of Erlotinib

There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of erlotinib. Talk to your doctor or nurse about these recommendations. They can help you decide what will work best for you. These are some of the most common side effects:

Nail and Skin Changes

Erlotinib has some unique nail and skin side effects that you may develop. Patients may develop a rash. While this rash may look like acne, it is not, and should not be treated with acne medications. The rash may appear red, swollen, crusty, dry and feel sore. You may also develop very dry or darkened skin, which may crack, be itchy or become flaky or scaly. The rash typically starts in the first week of treatment, but can occur at any time during treatment. Tips for managing your skin include:

  • Use a thick, alcohol-free emollient lotion or cream on your skin at least twice a day, including right after bathing.
  • Avoid sun exposure, as it can worsen the rash or cause a severe burn. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your head and face from the sun.
  • Bathe/shower in cool or lukewarm (not hot) water and pat your skin dry.
  • Use soaps, lotions and laundry detergents without alcohol, perfumes or dyes.
  • Wear gloves to wash dishes or do housework or gardening.
  • Drink plenty of water and try not to scratch or rub your skin.
  • Notify your healthcare team if you develop a rash, as they can provide suggestions to manage the rash and/or prescribe a topical medication to apply to the rash or an oral medication.
  • If you develop peeling or blistering of the skin, notify your healthcare team right away.


While receiving erlotinib, you may develop an inflammation of the skin around the nail bed/cuticle areas of toes or fingers, which is called paronychia. It can appear red, swollen or pus filled. Nails may develop "ridges" in them or fall off. You may also develop cuts or cracks that look like small paper cuts in the skin on your toes, fingers or knuckles. These side effects may appear several months after starting treatment, but can last for many months after treatment stops.

  • Follow the same recommendations for your skin (above).
  • Don't bite your nails or cuticles or cut the cuticles.
  • Keep your fingernails and toenails clean and dry.
  • You may use nail polish, but do not wear fake nails.
  • Notify your doctor or nurse if any nails fall off or you develop any of these side effects or other skin abnormalities.

Eye Concerns

While receiving erlotinib, some patients may develop irritation or damage to the cornea (clear part covers the eyeball) or changes in your eyesight. Notify your healthcare team if you develop any eye pain, swelling, redness or any vision changes, including blurriness and sensitivity to light.

Hair Changes

While receiving cetuximab, your eyelashes may grow very fast, become very long and bother your eyes. The hair on your head may become curly, fine or brittle. These tend to resolve once treatment is stopped.

Nausea and/or Vomiting

Talk to your doctor or nurse so they can prescribe medications to help you manage nausea and vomiting. In addition, dietary changes may help. Avoid things that may worsen the symptoms, such as heavy or greasy/fatty, spicy or acidic foods (lemons, tomatoes, oranges). Try antacids, (e.g. milk of magnesia, calcium tablets such as Tums), saltines, or ginger ale to lessen symptoms.

Call your doctor or nurse if you are unable to keep fluids down for more than 12 hours or if you feel lightheaded or dizzy at any time.


Your oncology team can recommend medications to relieve diarrhea. Also, try eating low-fiber, bland foods, such as white rice and boiled or baked chicken. Avoid raw fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, cereals and seeds. Soluble fiber is found in some foods and absorbs fluid, which can help relieve diarrhea. Foods high in soluble fiber include: applesauce, bananas (ripe), canned fruit, orange sections, boiled potatoes, white rice, products made with white flour, oatmeal, cream of rice, cream of wheat, and farina. Drink 8-10 glasses on non-alcoholic, un-caffeinated fluid a day to prevent dehydration.

Decrease in Appetite

Nutrition is an important part of your care. Cancer treatment can affect your appetite and, in some cases, the side effects of treatment can make eating difficult. Ask your nurse about nutritional counseling services at your treatment center to help with food choices.

  • Try to eat five or six small meals or snacks throughout the day, instead of 3 larger meals.
  • If you are not eating enough, nutritional supplements may help.
  • You may experience a metallic taste or find that food has no taste at all. You may dislike foods or beverages that you liked before receiving cancer treatment. These symptoms can last for several months or longer after treatment ends.
  • Avoid any food that you think smells or tastes bad. If red meat is a problem, eat chicken, turkey, eggs, dairy products and fish without a strong smell. Sometimes cold food has less of an odor.
  • Add extra flavor to meat or fish by marinating it in sweet juices, sweet and sour sauce or dressings. Use seasonings like basil, oregano or rosemary to add flavor. Bacon, ham and onion can add flavor to vegetables.


Fatigue is very common during cancer treatment and is an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that is not usually relieved by rest. While on cancer treatment, and for a period after, you may need to adjust your schedule to manage fatigue. Plan times to rest during the day and conserve energy for more important activities. Exercise can help combat fatigue; a simple daily walk with a friend can help.  Talk to your healthcare team for helpful tips on dealing with this side effect.

GI Tear (Perforation)
This medication can cause a tear in the intestinal wall, also called a gastrointestinal perforation. Signs of this can include: new or worsening pain in the abdomen, new abdominal swelling, chills, fever, constipation, nausea or vomiting.  If you experience any of these, contact your healthcare provider immediately or go to the emergency room.

Lung Changes

Erlotinib can cause lung problems, including interstitial lung disease.  Call your physician right away if you have shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing, or fever.

Liver Toxicity

This medication can cause liver toxicity, which your doctor may monitor for using blood tests called liver function tests. Notify your healthcare provider if you notice yellowing of the skin or eyes, your urine appears dark or brown or pain in your abdomen, as these can be signs of liver toxicity.

Heart Attack and Stroke

Erlotinib can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. If you experience symptoms of these problems, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately or go to an emergency room. Symptoms can include: chest pain or pressure, pain in your arm, back, neck or jaw, shortness of breath, numbness or weakness on one side of the body, trouble talking, confusion or mental status changes.

Reproductive Concerns

Exposure of an unborn child to this medication could cause birth defects, so you should not become pregnant or father a child while on this medication. Effective birth control is necessary during treatment and for at least 2 weeks after treatment. Even if your menstrual cycle stops or you believe you are not producing sperm, you could still be fertile and conceive.  You should consult with your healthcare team before breastfeeding while receiving this medication.



If you have questions or concerns about the medication that you have been prescribed, please contact your healthcare team. OncoLink is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through OncoLink should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your health care provider.


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