Recent FDA Study Warns Against General Anesthesia for Children Under 3 and Pregnant Women

FDA is warning that repeated or lengthy use of general anesthetic and sedation drugs during surgeries or procedures in children younger than 3 years or in pregnant women during their third trimester may affect the development of children’s brains.

Consistent with animal studies, recent human studies suggest that a single, relatively short exposure to general anesthetic and sedation drugs in infants or toddlers is unlikely to have negative effects on behavior or learning. However, further research is needed to fully characterize how early life anesthetic exposure affects children’s brain development.

To better inform the public about this potential risk, FDA is requiring warnings to be added to the labels of general anesthetic and sedation drugs (see List of General Anesthetic and Sedation Drugs Affected by this Label Change). FDA will continue to monitor the use of these drugs in children and pregnant women and will update the public if additional information becomes available.

See the FDA Drug Safety Communication for a data summary and listing of general anesthetic and sedation drugs affected by this label change.

BACKGROUND: Anesthetic and sedation drugs are necessary for infants, children, and pregnant women who require surgery or other painful and stressful procedures, especially when they face life-threatening conditions requiring surgery that should not be delayed. In addition, untreated pain can be harmful to children and their developing nervous systems.

FDA has been investigating the potential adverse effects of general anesthetic and sedation drugs on children’s brain development since the first animal study on this topic was published in 1999. FDA held advisory committee meetings in 2007, 2011, and 2014. To coordinate and fund research in this area, FDA also formed a partnership with the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS) called SmartTots (Strategies for Mitigating Anesthesia-Related neuroToxicity in Tots). More research is still needed to provide additional information about the safe use of these drugs in young children and pregnant women.

RECOMMENDATION: Health care professionals should balance the benefits of appropriate anesthesia in young children and pregnant women against the potential risks, especially for procedures that may last longer than 3 hours or if multiple procedures are required in children under 3 years. Discuss with parents, caregivers, and pregnant women the benefits, risks, and appropriate timing of surgery or procedures requiring anesthetic and sedation drugs.

Parents and caregivers should discuss with their child’s health care professional the potential adverse effects of anesthesia on brain development, as well as the appropriate timing of procedures that can be delayed without jeopardizing their child’s health. Pregnant women should have similar conversations with their health care professionals. Also talk with them about any questions or concerns.

Read the MedWatch safety alert, including a link to the FDA Drug Safety Communication, at:

http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm533195.htm