When people think of anesthesia, they often think of general anesthesia. General anesthesia is when you’re put to sleep to avoid feeling pain during surgery.

People with asthma have a greater chance of developing complications from general anesthesia compared to people without asthma. The risk is highest in people with uncontrolled or severe asthma.

People with well-controlled and mild asthma can usually undergo general anesthesia safely, but it’s still a good idea to discuss the risks with your doctor in advance.

It’s important to let the medical team know ahead of your surgery if you have asthma. For people with controlled and mild asthma, anesthesia can usually be safely administered.

For people with unmanaged asthma, healthcare professionals may recommend postponing elective surgery until your asthma is well-managed, especially if you have other risk factors that could increase your chances of complications.

Some potential complications include:

Anesthesia and bronchospasm

Asthma is characterized by inflammation in your airways that can trigger bronchospasm.

Bronchospasm is when the small muscles in your lungs tighten. They cause your airways to narrow and make it more difficult to breathe.

People with asthma have a higher risk of complications when receiving anesthesia because there’s an increased chance of developing low blood oxygen due to these muscle spasms.

Bronchospasm can be triggered by intubation during surgery, allergies to latex-based medical equipment, and hypersensitivity to anesthetics. Low blood oxygen levels can be life threatening in severe cases.

In an older study from 2005, researchers found that among 103 cases of bronchospasm during surgery, 22 percent were caused by an allergic reaction.

Of the non-allergic cases that occurred at the beginning or during anesthesia, 35 percent of cases were triggered by airway irritation, 23 percent from problems with an endotracheal tube, and 14 percent from aspiration of stomach contents.

More current (and larger) research is needed.

Children are especially more likely to develop adverse respiratory events during anesthesia.

People with asthma are at an increased risk of developing bronchospasm when receiving general anesthesia.

Bronchospasm decrease the amount of air that can come in and out of your lungs, leading to hypoxemia. The medical term hypoxemia is used to describe a low level of oxygen in your blood.

Hypoxemia can sometimes lead to another condition, hypoxia, where your body tissues do not receive enough oxygen.

A lack of oxygen to your brain, heart, or other major organs can lead to organ damage within minutes. In severe cases, hypoxia can lead to death.

Most complications from low blood oxygen levels arise soon after surgery in the recovery room.

Postoperative breathing complications are reported in between 2 and 19 percent of surgeries. Having a history of smoking or severe asthma are risk factors for developing breathing complications after surgery.

Postoperative breathing complications include:

In a 2016 study, researchers suggest that people with asthma have a higher chance of developing the following complications after surgery:

You can minimize your chances of developing postoperative complications by making sure your asthma is well-controlled before elective surgery. You can also follow any deep breathing exercises your treatment team gives you after surgery, and communicate openly with your care team about how you’re feeling.

You’ll also likely be encouraged to get regular physical activity to help lower your chances of getting an infection.

In the weeks leading up to your surgery, you can prepare and minimize your risks of complications by:

  • avoiding any known asthma triggers
  • reducing physical and mental stress
  • continuing to take your regularly prescribed medications
  • reducing or avoiding smoking if you’re a current smoker

Your anesthesia provider or primary doctor may recommend taking corticosteroids in the days before your surgery to reduce lung inflammation and decrease your chances of complications.

Research has found they’re most beneficial when administered at least 2 to 3 days before surgery.

The chances of developing complications from anesthesia are generally low if your asthma is well-controlled. In most cases, complications can be managed and don’t cause long-term health effects.

The risk of surgical complications varies based on factors such as:

  • the type of surgery
  • the extent of your surgery
  • the severity of your asthma
  • your overall health

Your healthcare team can help you figure out if you have a higher chance of developing any particular complication.

People with well-managed asthma can generally receive anesthesia without developing complications.

However, even if your asthma is well-managed, it’s a good idea to speak with your healthcare team before your surgery to make sure you’re a good candidate for receiving anesthesia.

You should also let the doctor and surgeon know if you have a flare-up of your asthma symptoms in the weeks leading up to your surgery.

If your asthma is currently severe or not well-controlled, it’s generally recommended that you postpone elective surgeries until you have it better managed to prevent complications.