How can a general anaesthetic sometimes lead to harm or death?
A general anaesthetic itself is very rarely the cause of death. The reasons why a person might experience harm or may die because of a general anaesthetic include:
An allergic reaction to the medications that are given during an anaesthetic
The risk of having a life-threatening allergic reaction is very low (less than 1 in 10,000) and most of those will recover completely. Your anaesthetist will be highly skilled in dealing with such situations. When the anaesthetist comes to see you before your operation it is important that you tell them about any allergies that you have, or if anyone in your family has had a problem with an anaesthetic in the past.
Difficulties putting in the breathing tube
After the anaesthetic medications have been given and the patient is asleep, a breathing tube is put in to allow a ventilator to breathe for the patient whilst they are asleep. Very occasionally the anaesthetist might have difficulty putting in the breathing tube. There are several things about the patient or the type of surgery that the patient is having that will alert the anaesthetist to potential problems. If, in your case, the anaesthetist feels that inserting the breathing tube may be difficult, they will discuss this with you at your pre-op assessment.
Reduced blood supply to major organs
Most anaesthetic medications cause the blood pressure to fall a little. Your anaesthetist will be skilled at managing this and have medication on hand to correct it. Particularly in people with 'furred' or 'hardened' arteries (atherosclerosis), organs including the kidneys and the brain can become damaged from a lack of blood supply in this situation.
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- Dr S White; Risks associated with your anaesthetic - Section 15: Death or brain damage Royal College of Anaesthetists, 2017
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