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Malignant hyperthermia

Medically reviewed on November 17, 2017

Overview

Malignant hyperthermia is a condition that triggers a severe reaction to certain drugs used as part of anesthesia for surgery. Without prompt treatment, the disease can be fatal.

The genes that cause malignant hyperthermia are inherited. In most cases, no signs or symptoms of the condition exist until you are exposed to anesthesia.

Treatments for the condition include medication and ice packs to cool the body temperature.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of malignant hyperthermia reaction include a dangerously high body temperature, severe muscle spasms and a fast heart rate. In most cases, the genetic defect that causes malignant hyperthermia is inherited. It is called a pharmacogenetic disorder because the reaction is caused by specific drugs. Genetic testing can reveal whether you have these mutations.

If you have a parent, sibling or child with malignant hyperthermia, there is a 50 percent chance that you have the condition as well. Other close relatives, such as aunts, uncles and grandchildren, have a 25 percent chance. Men are more likely to have an episode of malignant hyperthermia than are women. Children with the condition also are susceptible to reactions during surgery.

Malignant hyperthermia may not trigger a reaction during a person's first surgery. However, the risk of a crisis remains for future surgeries. For those at risk of having a reaction, other safe medications are available.

In rare cases, people with malignant hyperthermia have shown signs of a reaction after intense physical activity.

Treatment

If you have a family history of malignant hyperthermia or have a family member who has problems with anesthesia, tell your surgeon and anesthesiologist prior to surgery. This step allows your doctors to prepare for and respond quickly to any reactions.

A drug called dantrolene (Dantrium) is used to treat the reaction. Ice packs, cooling blankets and fans may also be used to help reduce body temperature.

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