Codeine After Surgery Could Endanger Certain Kids

In children with rare gene mutation, post-tonsillectomy death seemed to be due to reaction to pain medicine

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By Alan Mozes


HealthDay Reporter WEDNESDAY, April 11 (HealthDay News) -- Concerns about codeine safety have gained traction in the wake of the postoperative experience of four children who all carried a rare genetic mutation. A new study describes what happened to three of the patients, while a similar case came to light in 2009.

In certain very rare genetic cases, the common painkiller codeine can be lethal. The gene mutation causes the body to metabolize codeine into morphine at levels 50 percent to 70 percent higher than normal. Among such patients, an otherwise standard amount of codeine can unpredictably turn into a toxic overdose.

After undergoing tonsillectomies for sleep apnea, three children with the gene mutation ultimately died, while the fourth patient barely survived.

[Read: Taking Codeine While Breast-Feeding May Harm Infant.]

"Codeine has been around for the better part of a century as a medication, including as a syrup for children," said study lead author Dr. Gideon Koren, a professor of pediatrics, pharmacology, pharmacy and medical genetics at the University of Toronto. "That's the drug that is used by most surgeons in the U.S. to control pain. But codeine is not actually the analgesic. To deal with pain it has to be transformed in the liver into morphine. And that happens with everyone who takes it to some degree," he explained.

"Most people take 10 molecules of codeine and make one molecule of morphine," added Koren, who is also a professor at the University of Western Ontario. "The problem is that our knowledge of genetics has revealed that there are people who are ultra-rapid metabolizers. They take 10 molecules of codeine and make two, three or even five molecules of morphine. In other words, they take the right doses but end up poisoning themselves."

Koren and his colleagues described the cases of the three recent pediatric codeine overmetabolizers in the April 9 online and May print issue of Pediatrics. The earlier case was reported in 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Tragically," Koren said, "we have found that once in 2009 and again now in three additional cases, toddlers who underwent tonsillectomies for sleep apnea and then were treated with codeine were in that ultra-rapid metabolizer group that produce too much morphine. And we have every reason to believe there have been many more such cases, which of course almost certainly occurred in the past, but before anyone knew how to uncover the reason genetically."

About 2 percent to 3 percent of children have obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, which involves structural airway issues that interfere with breathing and, in turn, sleeping. And among those whose sleep apnea is caused by enlarged tonsils, tonsillectomy is often the treatment of choice.

[Read: Post-Tonsillectomy Codeine May Pose Dangers.]

In 70 percent to 80 percent of cases, such surgery successfully improves the patient's sleep apnea condition. And for the children in the recent case studies -- a 3-year old girl, a 4-year-old boy and a 5-year old boy -- the surgery itself was not the problem.

Instead, because of their unidentified ability to overmetabolize codeine, their problems began with the codeine prescribed for pain management after the procedure.

After they were discharged from the hospital, lethargy and signs of heavy sedation set in, as well as other symptoms, including fever, impaired breathing and vomiting. Both boys died within 24 hours after being released from the hospital, while the girl was able to survive after readmission and mechanical ventilation support.

The researchers noted that screening tests for metabolizing mutations are available. But, many medical facilities remain unaware of the risks posed by such mutations. The tests are expensive, amounting to several hundred dollars each. As a result, such screenings are not currently a routine feature of preoperative hospital protocol.

Koren said that in Europe, physicians have long since replaced codeine with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for post-tonsillectomy pain management. This is because, along with the metabolizing issue, one effect of codeine is to inhibit breathing, which is a problem for the roughly one-fifth of pediatric patients who will still experience sleep apnea even after surgery.