Tarceva Side Effects

woman with skin rash on arm
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Tarceva (erlotinib) is a targeted cancer drug prescribed to treat advanced stage non-small cell lung cancer and also advanced pancreatic cancer (in combination with gemcitabine chemotherapy). It works by targeting a protein called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) that fuels cancer cell growth. It is an oral medication and is prescribed in tablet form.

Side Effects

As with any cancer drug, there may be side effects. Be sure to discuss any symptoms of these with your doctor if they occur. The most common Tarceva side effects include rash, diarrhea, loss of appetite, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.


Rashes related to Tarceva usually appear within 10 days of starting treatment. Those taking Tarceva in combination with gemcitabine can develop a rash anytime during treatment. Tarceva rashes look similar to acne or dry skin and can appear on the body and face. It most often appears from the waist up. For some, the rash can be itchy or feel like a minor sunburn. Not all people will develop a skin rash from Tarceva. Those who develop rash often report it subsiding during treatment and as the dosage is lowered.

A 2007 study found that those who developed a rash while taking Tarceva had better outcomes than those who did not. It is not that the drug was completely ineffective in those who did not develop a rash, but those who developed a rash were more likely to benefit. So, while a rash related to Tarceva use is looked upon favorably by oncologists, it is not a guarantee.

It is very important that you let your doctor know if you begin to develop a rash. Do not apply any medications to treat the rash, avoid even over the counter or herbal remedies. Consult your doctor first. Your doctor may prescribe a topical antibiotic or other ointment to help with the rash. Some may benefit from temporarily stopping treatment, even if it just for a few days.

It is important to note that severe blistering skin rashes have occurred during clinical trials. It is an extremely rare side effect that has been compared to Stevens-Johnsons syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that is caused by a severe allergic reaction to a medication.


Another common side effect of Tarceva is diarrhea. The concern with diarrhea is that it could result in dehydration, so you want to discuss the condition with your doctor. While it can often be controlled with over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medications, consult with your doctor before taking anything. He or she may have specific recommendations concerning the brand and the dosage. If your diarrhea worsens or cannot be controlled with over-the-counter medications, call your doctor.

Other Common Side Effects

Other common side effects of Tarceva include loss of appetite, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Always remember to inform your doctor about any side effects you are experiencing.

Rare Side Effects

In clinical trials, these rare side effects of Tarceva were observed:

  • intestinal perforations
  • lung disease
  • kidney/liver damage
  • damage to the eyes

Be sure to provide your doctor has a thorough health history that includes all over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and prescription drugs you take. Certain conditions may increase your risk of developing uncommon side effects.

Keep in mind that these are extremely rare side effects. If you are concerned about the risks of these side effects, talk to your doctor. Together, you can discuss the benefits versus the risks of taking Tarceva.

When to Call Your Doctor

Call your doctor if you:

  • develop a cough
  • experience shortness of breath
  • experience eye irritation
  • Develop a skin rash or your rash worsens
  • have a fever
  • experience vomiting or diarrhea that is worsening
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Article Sources

  • Erlotinib, MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, revised 07/01/2009.
  • Wacker B, Nagrani T, Weinberg J, et al. Correlation between development of rash and efficacy in patients treated with the epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor erlotinib in two large phase III studies. Clin Cancer Res. 2007;13(13):3913-3921.