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What Is a Propofol Infusion?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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A propofol infusion delivers propofol, a drug used to produce sedation and unconsciousness, intravenously. It is mainly given during surgeries that require general anesthesia or it may be employed to keep patients sedated if they are recovering in an intensive care unit (ICU). The medication is considered helpful because the drug’s effects can wear off quickly, allowing patients to swiftly return to consciousness. On the other hand, the value of this medication is being increasingly questioned because of some of its side effects and due to a syndrome associated with it that may cause death.

In surgical settings, a propofol infusion promotes amnesia and unconsciousness. It does not relieve pain, though, and other drugs are usually infused with it. In the ICU, a propofol infusion may be indicated for patients who are intubated. Most patients are unable to be conscious for long periods if they have a breathing tube. They tend to fight the tube and experience severe discomfort that can worsen breathing.

Doctors have considered the propofol infusion advantageous because it is quick acting and may promote unconsciousness within a few seconds of administration. It also more rapidly clears the body once it is discontinued. When an infusion is halted, patients may wake within a few seconds, which may be useful in certain clinical settings.

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As with all anesthesia medications, receiving a propofol infusion is not without risk. Patients may have unusual movements, be overly euphoric when they recover, and men may experience priapism, or an erection that lasts for over four hours. Allergy to the drug or its components, which include soybean oil and egg, may develop, and must be quickly addressed to avoid an anaphylactic reaction. Abnormally low blood pressure, severely suppressed breathing, and pain at the site of the infusion may occur, too.

The most serious, though rare, side effect of a propofol infusion may occur if the medication is used for long periods. It is called propofol infusion syndrome, and it causes acidosis that can ultimately lead to heart attack and death. In response to abundant literature proving this connection, some of the main manufacturers of the medication have halted production, creating shortages. Numerous lawsuits against these companies have been brought by families of individuals who experienced this syndrome, though its rate of occurrence is estimated below one percent.

Another concern with the use of the propofol infusion arose after the death of entertainer, Michael Jackson. It is believed that receiving propofol infusions partly caused his death. These were not given in any manner intended by the manufacturers. Nevertheless, it exposed the possibility that the drug could be misused to a patient’s detriment.

It is unclear whether doctors will continue to use propofol infusion in its sanctioned ways. Medications that are similar to the drug have been introduced, and these may be preferred. Most members of the medical community believe this drug has legitimate and important uses, and the risks of employing it occur rarely and may be reduced with vigilance.

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