Complications from general anesthesia
Serious side effects of general anesthesia are uncommon in people who are otherwise healthy. But because general anesthesia affects the whole body, it is more likely to cause side effects than local or regional anesthesia. Fortunately, most side effects of general anesthesia are minor and can be easily managed.
General anesthesia suppresses the normal throat reflexes that prevent aspiration, such as swallowing, coughing, or gagging. Aspiration occurs when an object or liquid is inhaled into the respiratory tract (the windpipe or the lungs). To help prevent aspiration, an endotracheal (ET) tube may be inserted during general anesthesia. When an ET tube is in place, the lungs are protected so stomach contents cannot enter the lungs. Aspiration during anesthesia and surgery is very uncommon. To reduce this risk, people are usually instructed not to eat or drink anything for a certain number of hours before anesthesia so that the stomach is empty. Anesthesia specialists use many safety measures to minimize the risk of aspiration.
Insertion or removal of airways may cause respiratory problems such as coughing; gagging; or muscle spasms in the voice box, or larynx (laryngospasm), or in the bronchial tubes in the lungs (bronchospasm). Insertion of airways also may cause an increase in blood pressure (hypertension) and heart rate (tachycardia). Other complications may include damage to teeth and lips, swelling in the larynx, sore throat, and hoarseness caused by injury or irritation of the larynx.
Other serious risks of general anesthesia include changes in blood pressure or heart rate or rhythm, heart attack, or stroke. Death or serious illness or injury due solely to anesthesia is rare and is usually also related to complications from the surgery. Death occurs in about 1 out of 200,000 healthy people who get anesthesia.
Some people who are going to have general anesthesia express concern that they will not be completely unconscious but will “wake up” and have some awareness during the surgical procedure. But awareness during general anesthesia is very rare. Anesthesia specialists devote careful attention and use many methods to prevent this.