The Effects of Anesthesia on Children


Children may need anesthesia for various reasons: surgical procedures, dental care or even simple needle sticks. As a general rule, side effects from anesthetic are minimal, regardless of whether it is topical or general anesthesia, although there are some questions being raised about the safety of general anesthesia in infants.

Topical Anesthetic

Topical anesthetic can be applied by simply swabbing or rubbing the anesthetic agent into the child's skin or through new methods, including patches and pressurized pumps. These are used to help children avoid pain from minor procedures, including blood draws and needle sticks. In addition to removing the physical pain, topical anesthetic can also help to remove the anxiety and fear children feel about painful procedures. Risks and side effects are minimal, with allergic reactions being the most common.

General Anesthetic

General anesthetic in children is used to put the child to sleep. There are two common ways of inducing anesthesia. In inhalation induction, the child wears a mask covering his mouth and nose. Anesthetic gas flows through the mask, and the child can drift off with no pain. Another option is IV (intravenous) induction, which requires the anesthetic to be given through a catheter into a vein. If the induction will be IV, many anesthesiologists will chose to use a topical anesthetic on the injection site. Regardless of method, the outcome is the same: The child is sedated and asleep for the needed medical or dental procedure.

Side Effects

Side effects are not extremely common, but when they do occur, they normally include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and muscle aches and pains. As a general rule, they last for a few hours after surgery. Tylenol is an acceptable treatment for your child to help with aches and pains she is suffering from, but may not even be necessary. Serious side effects are related to allergic reactions and may include severe pain, weakness or sleepiness and abnormal heart rate or blood pressure.


Most side effects do not linger, but some children will come down with croup following a surgical procedure that required anesthetic. This is most common in children who have already had croup or who were born prematurely. Croup is treated with medication and does not generally cause any further problems.


Studies have been done in animals that show that there may be a risk to infants who undergo general anesthesia. An article written based on a study in 2008 for Anesthesia and Analgesia notes that neuronal cell death has been documented in young animals. This could mean that infants suffer from some anesthesia-induced neurotoxicity, even when there are no known complications. Further studies are being conducted.

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