Treatments and tests

Anaesthesia for children

What is an anaesthetic?

An anaesthetic agent is a drug that produces a complete or partial loss of feeling. There are three types of anaesthetic; general, regional and local.

When a patient undergoes a general anaesthetic, they lose sensation and become unconscious. This allows different medical procedures – such as surgery – to take place without the patient feeling any pain.

An anaesthetist is a doctor specially trained to ensure your child has a safe and successful anaesthetic. All complex paediatric cases are handled at Princess Margaret Hospital and supervised directly by a specialist paediatric (child) anaesthetist.

Risks of anaesthesia

All medical procedures, including anaesthesia, have a small risk of complications and side effects. Risks cannot be predicted and can occur without any error or mistake in judgement or technique.

Around 5 per cent of children in Australia are anaesthetised each year. Australia is one of the safest countries in the world for children's anaesthesia. 

  • The risk of major disability or death in a child after anaesthesia is extremely low in Australia.
  • The risk of a disastrous outcome (death or permanent disability) in an otherwise healthy child having routine elective anaesthesia in Australia is extremely rare.
  • The risks of a bad outcome can increase in a child with serious medical or surgical conditions, but are still uncommon. Life-threatening conditions causing a large increase in anaesthetic risk are uncommon. 

Side effects

It is quite common for children to experience minor side effects from anaesthesia. Below are some examples of side effects or difficulties that might be encountered.

  • Some children can become difficult and may require restraint at the start of anaesthesia. While this can be upsetting, your assistance as a parent can be useful in this situation.
  • Inserting a drip into a child’s veins can be difficult. Several attempts may be required, particularly in babies and toddlers. Bruising at the sites of injection will fade quickly.
  • Nausea and vomiting occurs in 10 per cent of children, but generally stops within a day. The risk is much greater if the child has a history of vomiting with anaesthesia or motion sickness. The risk increases with a strong family history of vomiting with anaesthesia. You should tell the anaesthetist about any of these. Some operations are more likely to cause your child to vomit after surgery.
  • Allergic reactions to anaesthetics are extremely rare in children and are successfully treatable in most cases.
  • Sore throat sometimes occurs after anaesthesia. This is due to a tube placed in the throat to allow breathing during surgery, and settles quickly after 24 hours.
  • Pneumonia can be caused by food or fluid from the stomach entering the lungs. This is the most common major complication during anaesthesia in children. This occurs about once every 5,000 anaesthetics and can require intensive care treatment. This is the reason that fasting is so important. Babies and children are most at risk.
  • Pain after surgery varies greatly. Pain relief techniques are adjusted to safely provide analgesia, or an absence of pain. Occasionally the routine methods of pain relief do not provide complete relief.
  • A local anaesthetic block numbs the nerves in a specific part of the body. Side effects from blocks are uncommon. Some children dislike the numbness or weakness that happens with the block. If the block is unsuccessful another method of pain relief may be needed.

Major complications from a spinal or epidural block are extremely rare. They can include permanent nerve damage, epidural infection and convulsions. You may wish to discuss these complications with your child's anaesthetist.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Child and Adolescent Health Service

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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