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Cetuximab Side Effects

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Cetuximab is a monoclonal antibody used in the treatment of cancer. The agent targets and binds to epidermal growth factor receptors, inhibiting it its ability to send signals to cancer cells that promote tumor growth, angiogenesis and survival. Cetuximab is approved for use in metastatic colorectal cancer and head and neck cancer.

Some of the reported side effects of cetuximab include:

Allergic reaction to the drug
A small proportion of individuals are allergic to cetuximab and may develop symptoms such as difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, shock, loss of consciousness or heart attack. To avoid hypersensitivity reactions occurring, antiallergy medications are administered before treatment and if a reaction does occur, the treatment is immediately stopped.

Studies have shown a slightly increased risk of heart attack or heart problems and/or sudden death when cetuximab is used in combination with radiation therapy or chemotherapy compared with the use of radiation or chemotherapy alone.

Low serum levels of electrolytes such as magnesium, potassium and calcium have been reported after the use of both cetuximab alone and cetuximab in combination with other cancer drugs.

Lung toxicity
Rarely, cetuximab can alter lung tissue and cause breathlessness and cough. Studies also suggest the using the agent can increase the risk of lung disease.

Skin reactions
Skin problems such as an acne-like rash, infection, cracking and may occur.

Other side effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Infection
  • Diarrhea
  • Formation of clots in the lungs called pulmonary emboli which obstruct the airways and can be life threatening
  • Kidney failure

It is not yet clear whether cetuximab harms the unborn baby in pregnant women so the drug should only be used if the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks to the fetus.

Cetuximab can be passed on through breast milk and nursing is not advised until 2 months has passed since the last dose of the drug was taken.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 14, 2014

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