Cetuximab (Erbitux®) is a targeted therapy drug. It is used to treat cancer of the bowel (colon and rectum), or head and neck.

What is cetuximab (Erbitux®)?

Cetuximab (Erbitux®) is a type of targeted therapy drug known as a monoclonal antibody.

Cetuximab is used to treat cancer of the bowel (colon and rectum) when

  • the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (advanced cancer)
  • tests show the cancer cells do not have a change (mutation) in a type of gene called RAS.

It is usually given with chemotherapy when it is used to treat bowel cancer.

Cetuximab is used to treat some head and neck cancers when

  • they have started to spread into surrounding tissue (locally advanced cancer)
  • they have spread to other parts of the body (advanced cancer).

It is usually given with radiotherapy when it is used to treat head and neck cancers. It can also be given with chemotherapy.

It is best to read this information with our general information about the type of cancer you have.

Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.

How cetuximab is given

You will usually have cetuximab at a day unit. It can be given on its own or in combination with other cancer drugs.

During treatment you usually see a cancer doctor, a cancer nurse or specialist nurse, and a specialist pharmacist. This is who we mean when we mention doctor, nurse or pharmacist in this information.

You will see a doctor or nurse before you have treatment. They will ask you how you have been feeling. Your nurse will tell you when your treatment is likely to be ready. Your nurse, pharmacist or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.

Cetuximab is given as a drip into a vein (intravenous infusion). It is usually given using a pump that controls the rate of the drip.

You have the first treatment slowly, over about 2 hours. If you don’t have any problems, you can have your next treatment over 1 hour. Afterwards you stay in the clinic for about an hour, so the nurses can be sure you don’t have a reaction to the drug.

You usually have cetuximab once a week. If you are having chemotherapy on the same day, you usually have it an hour after cetuximab.

About side effects

We explain the most common side effects of this treatment here. We also include some less common side effects. You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you are unlikely to get all of them.

If you are also having chemotherapy or radiotherapy, you may have some side effects that we have not listed here. Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have.

Your doctor can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist explains. This means they will be more likely to work for you. Your nurse will give you advice about managing your side effects. After your treatment is over, most side effects start to improve.

Serious and life-threatening side effects

Some cancer treatments can cause severe side effects. Rarely, these may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor or nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

Contact the hospital

Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. If you feel unwell or need advice, you can call them at any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.

More information

We cannot list every side effect for this treatment. There are some rare side effects that are not listed. You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information.

Side effects during treatment

Allergic reaction

Some people have an allergic reaction to cetuximab. This can happen while having the treatment or for up to an hour afterwards. You will be given drugs before the infusion to reduce the chance of a reaction happening.

A reaction is usually mild but, rarely, can be more severe. If you have a reaction, the nurses can usually treat it by slowing or stopping the drip. Then you will have the rest of your treatments more slowly.

Your nurse will check you for signs of a reaction during your treatment. Always tell your them straight away if you feel unwell or have any of the following symptoms:

  • feeling hot or flushed
  • a skin rash
  • itching
  • shivering
  • feeling dizzy
  • a headache
  • feeling breathless
  • swelling of your face or mouth
  • pain in your back, tummy or chest.

Rarely, people may get a reaction a few hours after treatment. If you have any of the symptoms above or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away for advice.

You are more likely to have a serious allergic reaction to cetuximab if you have an allergy to:

  • red meat
  • tick bites (a tick is a tiny spider-like insect found in woodland and heath areas).

You must tell your cancer doctor and nurse if you have either of these allergies before they give you cetuximab.

Common side effects

Skin changes

Cetuximab often causes an acne-like rash or other skin changes such as dry, itchy or flaky skin. This is most likely to start in the first 3 weeks of treatment.

Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and prescribe creams for your skin or medicines to help. If you have severe skin problems, your doctor may need to delay your next treatment or lower the dose.

Skin changes usually improve when treatment finishes. We have information about coping with skin changes during treatment.

Very rarely, cetuximab causes a very severe skin reaction. Contact the hospital straight away if you have:

  • a rash that blisters or peels
  • sores on your lips or in your mouth
  • flu-like symptoms or a fever (high temperature).

Reduced levels of magnesium in the blood

Magnesium helps keep nerves and muscles working properly. You will have regular blood tests to check your levels of magnesium. Your doctor may prescribe you magnesium supplements if the levels are too low.

Sore mouth and nose

The lining of your mouth and nose may become sore. You may have mouth ulcers or nosebleeds. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of these changes. They can give you medicines to help.

Clean your teeth or dentures morning and night and after meals. Use a soft-bristled or children’s toothbrush. Your nurse can give you advice on looking after your mouth.

Tiredness

Feeling tired is a common side effect. Try to pace yourself and plan your day so you have time to rest. Gentle exercise, like short walks, can give you more energy. If you feel sleepy, do not drive or operate machinery.

Feeling sick

Your doctor can give you anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness. If you still feel sick, tell your doctor. They can prescribe other anti-sickness drugs that may work better for you.

Diarrhoea

If you have diarrhoea,tit can usually be controlled with medicines. Follow any advice you have been given about taking anti-diarrhoea drugs. Tell your doctor if the diarrhoea is severe or if continues after taking the anti-diarrhoea drugs. It is important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day.This stops you getting too dehydrated. It can help to avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk products, high-fat foods and high-fibre foods.

Hair changes

Your eyelashes may grow longer and more curly than usual. Men may notice less beard growth. You may notice your head and body hair is finer, curlier or more brittle. Some people may lose their hair slowly over several months. These changes are usually temporary and gradually improve once treatment is over. 

Nail changes

You may notice changes to your nails. They may become brittle and break easily. Wear gloves when washing dishes or using detergents to help protect your hands and nails. If the area around your nails becomes inflamed, tell your doctor straight away.

Headaches

This treatment may cause headaches. If this happens, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you painkillers.

Sore eyes

Cetuximab may make your eyes dry, sore, red and itchy. Your doctor can prescribe eye drops to help with this.

Tell your doctor if

  • your eyes do not improve after taking the eye drops
  • you have changes to your vision
  • you have pain in your eye.

Sometimes cetuximab may cause inflammation of the eyelid. It is important to contact your doctor straight away if this happens.

Liver changes

This treatment may cause changes in the way your liver works. This will return to normal when the treatment finishes. Your doctor or nurse will take regular blood samples to check your liver is working properly.

Breathlessness

Let your doctor know if you become breathless or are more breathless than usual. Rarely, cetuximab can cause a condition in which the lungs become inflamed. This can be very serious. Contact the hospital straight away if you suddenly become breathless or your breathing gets worse.

Other information

Blood clot risk

Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Symptoms of a blood clot include:

  • pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm
  • breathlessness
  • chest pain.

If you have any of these symptoms, contact a doctor straight away.

A blood clot is serious, but can be treated with drugs that thin the blood. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.

Other drugs

Some medicines, including ones you buy in a shop or chemist, can be harmful while you are having this treatment. Tell your cancer doctor about any drugs you are taking, including vitamins, herbal drugs and complementary therapies.

Vaccinations

Your doctor or nurse may talk to you about vaccinations. These help reduce your risk of getting infections.

Doctors usually recommend that you have a flu jab, which is an inactivated vaccination. People with weak immune systems can have this type of vaccination.

If your immune system is weak, you need to avoid live vaccinations such as shingles. Your cancer doctor or GP can tell you more about live vaccinations.

Contraception

Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having this treatment and for some time afterwards. The drugs may harm the developing baby. It is important to use effective contraception.

Breastfeeding

Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.

Fertility

Some cancer drugs can affect whether you can get pregnant or make someone pregnant. If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

Medical and dental treatment

If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses that you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor so they can ask for advice.

If you think you need dental treatment, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse. Always tell your dentist you are having cancer treatment.

How we can help

How to print a PDF from this website
Instructions on how you can make a PDF version of this page using the print function on your browser.
Clinical Information Nurse Specialists
Our Cancer Information Nurse Specialists are dedicated cancer nurses available to talk to on our Macmillan Cancer Support Line. 
0808 808 00 00
7 days a week, 8am - 8pm
Email us
Get in touch via this form
Chat online
7 days a week, 8am - 8pm
Online Community
An anonymous network of people affected by cancer which is free to join. Share experiences, ask questions and talk to people who understand.
Help in your area
What's going on near you? Find out about support groups, where to get information and how to get involved with Macmillan where you live.