Side effects of general anesthesia: short and long term effects

When is general anesthesia used and is it safe?

General anesthesia is very safe. Even if you have significant health problems, you will most likely tolerate general anesthesia without serious problems.

But with any medication or medical procedure, you may experience some side effects. This is what you can expect.

What short-term side effects are possible?

Most side effects of general anesthesia occur immediately after your operation and do not last long. Once the surgery is done and the anesthesia drugs are stopped, you will wake up slowly in the operating room or in the recovery room. You will probably feel dazed and a bit confused.

You may also feel some of these common side effects:

  • Nausea and vomiting. This common side effect usually occurs immediately after the procedure, but some people may continue to feel sick for a day or two. Anti-nausea medications can help.

  • Dry mouth. You may feel dry when you wake up. As long as you do not have too much nausea, drinking water can help take care of your dry mouth.

  • Sore throat or hoarseness. The tube that is placed in your throat to help you breathe during surgery can leave you with a sore throat after it is removed.

  • Chills and chills. It is common for your body temperature to go down during general anesthesia. Your doctors and nurses will make sure your temperature does not go too low during surgery, but you may wake up shaking and feeling cold. Your chills can last from a few minutes to hours.

  • Confusion and diffuse thinking.. When you first wake up from anesthesia, you may feel confused, drowsy and foggy. Usually, this lasts only a few hours, but for some people, especially older adults, confusion can last for days or weeks.

  • Muscle pains. The medications used to relax the muscles during surgery can cause pain later.

  • Itch. If narcotic medications (opioids) are used during or after your operation, it may be itchy. This is a common side effect of this class of medications.

  • Bladder problems You may have trouble urinating for a short time after general anesthesia.

  • Dizziness. You may feel dizzy when you get up for the first time. Drinking lots of fluids should help you feel better.

What long-term side effects are possible?

Most people do not experience long-term side effects. However, older adults are more likely to experience side effects that last more than a couple of days.

This may include:

  • Postoperative delirium. Some people may get confused, disoriented or have trouble remembering things after surgery. This disorientation may appear and disappear, but usually disappears after about a week.

  • Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD). Some people may experience ongoing memory problems or other types of cognitive impairment after surgery. But it is unlikely that this is the result of anesthesia. It seems to be a result of the surgery itself.

Some research suggests that people over 60 may be more likely to develop POCD.

You may also be more likely to develop POCD if you have:

  • had a stroke

  • heart disease

  • lung disease

  • Alzheimer disease

  • Parkinson's disease

What increases your risk of side effects?

For the most part, general anesthesia is very safe. It is the surgical procedure itself that puts you at risk. But older people and those with prolonged procedures are at greater risk of side effects and poor results.

If you have any of the following conditions, be sure to tell your doctor, as these conditions can affect your performance during and after surgery:

  • history of adverse reactions to anesthesia

  • Sleep apnea

  • seizures

  • obesity

  • high blood pressure

  • diabetes

  • heart disease

  • lung disease

  • kidney disease

  • medication allergies

You should also inform your doctor if:

  • smoke

  • use a lot of alcohol

  • take medicine to thin the blood

Is it possible to wake up during surgery?

Very rarely, people may be aware of what happens during surgery. Some experts estimate that about 1 in 1,000 people regain consciousness, but can not move, talk or alert their doctor. Other sources report that it is even rarer, as infrequent as 1 in 15,000 or 1 in 23,000.

When this happens, the person usually does not feel any pain. However, operational awareness can be very distressing and can cause long-term psychological problems, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you experience operative awareness under general anesthesia, it may be beneficial to talk to a therapist or counselor about your experience.

Why is general anesthesia used over other methods?

If you need surgery, you probably do not want to feel what is happening. Depending on the type of surgery, this can be accomplished in several ways.

Your doctor may recommend general anesthesia if your procedure will:

  • take a long time

  • result in the loss of blood

  • it affects your breathing

General anesthesia is essentially a medically induced coma. Your doctor administers medications to make you unconscious so you do not move or feel any pain during the operation.

Other procedures can be done with:

  • Local anesthesia, like when you get points in your hand.

  • sedation, like when you have a colonoscopy

  • A regional anesthetic, like when you get an epidural to give birth to a baby.

Your doctor will guide you through your individual options when planning your procedure. They can answer any questions you may have about what will be used and why.

The bottom line

It is important for you to talk openly with your doctors about all of your health information. Your anesthesiologist can safely manage your care and treat your side effects, but only if you are honest.

When talking with your surgeon and anesthesiologist before the procedure, be sure to talk with them about their concerns and expectations. You should also discuss your:

  • Previous experience in anesthesia

  • healthy conditions

  • use of medications

  • recreational drug use

Be sure to follow all of your instructions before surgery, including what you can and can not eat and drink, as well as what medications you should or should not take. Following these instructions can help minimize some side effects of general anesthesia.

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