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What Is Erlotinib?

An oncologist may prescribe the antineoplastic agent Erlotinib as part of a treatment plan for cancer.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Erlotinib is an antineoplastic agent, a drug designed to be used in the treatment of cancer. This medication is available in the form of an oral tablet taken by the patient at set intervals. Like other chemotherapy drugs, it is prescribed by an oncologist in consultation with the patient and other care providers, and it is available by prescription only to limit the risks of unauthorized use of the medication. People should store their erlotinib in a cool, dry place out of reach of children and pets.

This drug is a type of targeted cancer therapy, developed to single out specific types of cells while avoiding damage to healthy cells. It blocks an enzyme known as epidermal growth factor, inhibiting the growth of cancerous tumors. It is most commonly used in the treatment of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, although it can also be prescribed for pancreatic cancer and other types of cancers. Erlotinib may be used as a standalone medication or as part of combination chemotherapy.

Before prescribing erlotinib, a doctor will review a patient's medical history. Certain conditions like a prior history of heart attacks can be contraindicators for this drug, and if the patient is taking other medications, including over the counter drugs and herbal supplements, it may be necessary to stop these medications for the duration of chemotherapy to avoid adverse drug interactions. Patients need to make sure their medical history is accurate, as failing to disclose a medication or past medical problem could be dangerous.

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People preparing to take erlotinib also need to be aware of the impact of the drug on fertility. After taking the drug, it may not be possible to have children, and pregnant women should not take this drug, as it can cause severe birth defects. In cases where the patient absolutely must start chemotherapy immediately, termination of the pregnancy may be recommended. People concerned about fertility can discuss the possibility of banking eggs, sperm, or embryos for future use.

Common erlotinib side effects include eye irritation, nausea, and fatigue. Some people develop allergic reactions to the drug, and it is important to report symptoms like hives and difficulty breathing. In addition, the drug exposes people to the risk of lung infections. Patients who have trouble breathing or develop coughs while on this medication should discuss the situation with their doctors to see if they need to be screened for infections in the lungs.

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