Frequently Asked Questions

What are the Risks of Anesthesia?

A natural concern of any parent or guardian whose child is having an operation is whether the anesthesia will cause any harm. Even though anesthesia today is much safer than it has ever been, all anesthesia has an element of risk. In fact, sometimes it is difficult to separate the risks of anesthesia from the risks of the operation itself. Anesthesia aims to take away the pain and discomfort of surgery and make it easier for a procedure to be accomplished optimally, and these benefits must be weighed against the risks of anesthesia itself.

The specific risks of anesthesia will vary with the type of operation and whether it is an emergency, the age of the child, and any other problems or illnesses that exist. Also, each type of anesthetic has a specific set of risks and side effects associated with it. The anesthesiologist will talk to you about the various types of anesthesia that may be used for your child, and the risks and benefits (advantages and disadvantages) of each.

Types of Risk

The risks of anesthesia may be considered in terms of side effects and adverse effects.

A side effect is a secondary or unwanted effect of a drug or treatment. Many side effects of anesthesia drugs and techniques can be anticipated, but may be unavoidable. Although at times uncomfortable or distressing, most common side effects are not particularly dangerous. They will either wear off or can be treated easily. Examples of side effects are nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, dizziness, sore throat, shivering, aches and pains, discomfort during injection of drugs, and agitation upon awakening from anesthesia.

An adverse effect is a result of a drug or treatment that is neither intended nor expected. Adverse effects are very rare, but may occur. These may include dental trauma, croup (swelling of the windpipe), allergic reactions to drugs or latex products, wheezing, vocal cord spasm or injury, regurgitation of stomach contents with subsequent aspiration pneumonia, injury to arteries, veins or nerves, alterations in blood pressure, and/or irregular heart rhythms. Death and brain damage are the most feared of all anesthetic risks, but fortunately these complications are extremely rare. In the United States, the chance (risk) of a healthy child dying or sustaining a severe injury as a result of anesthesia is less than the risk of traveling in a car.

Ways to Reduce Risk

  • Sharing all information about your child's health (including all medications your child is taking, even those that can be obtained without a doctor's prescription) with the anesthesiologist prior to the procedure. This will allow the anesthesiologist to make a decision as to which type of anesthesia and drugs are safest for the patient
  • Adhering to the guidelines you are given regarding limiting eating and drinking before the operation
  • Continuing usual medications unless the anesthesiologist or surgeon recommends against it
  • Ensuring that any other chronic illnesses are being optimally treated
  • Having an anesthesiologist who is experienced in the care of children

Most children who undergo anesthesia will be quite comfortable and have no complications. They will often be able to go home the same day as the procedure if the surgery is not too extensive.

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