Halothane Toxicity

Article Author:
Michael Gyorfi

Article Editor:
Peggy Kim

Editors In Chief:
Hela Kchir
Joseph Lee
Savio John

Managing Editors:
Avais Raja
Orawan Chaigasame
Carrie Smith
Abdul Waheed
Khalid Alsayouri
Kyle Blair
Trevor Nezwek
Radia Jamil
Erin Hughes
Patrick Le
Anoosh Zafar Gondal
Saad Nazir
William Gossman
Hassam Zulfiqar
Navid Mahabadi
Hussain Sajjad
Steve Bhimji
Muhammad Hashmi
John Shell
Matthew Varacallo
Heba Mahdy
Ahmad Malik
Sarosh Vaqar
Mark Pellegrini
James Hughes
Beata Beatty
Daniyal Ameen
Altif Muneeb
Beenish Sohail
Nazia Sadiq
Hajira Basit
Phillip Hynes
Komal Shaheen
Sandeep Sekhon

8/18/2019 10:24:54 PM


"Few drugs have excited such widespread interest and stimulated as much clinical and laboratory investigation as halothane." —Editorial, Brit. J. Anaesth. (1962).[1]

Halothane is a clear, heavy, and colorless liquid with a sweet and non-irritating odor. Halothane’s structure is that of an alkane. It has primarily been used clinically as an inhalational anesthetic. Ether and Chloroform were rapidly replaced by halothane upon its introduction in 1956. Halothane is associated with a lower risk of nausea and vomiting than the fluorinated methyl ethyl ether agents.[2] Due to its favorable side effect profile, halothane became the standard of practice, used in almost every operating room and for the comparison of other inhalational anesthetics as they came to the market. Although halothane has several drawbacks, the lack of flammability and general smoothness of administration led to rapid, widespread use, which only changed with the growing popularity of sevoflurane in the 1990s.[3] Although widely replaced by isoflurane or sevoflurane, halothane is the last common non-ether anesthetic used in the operating room. Halothane is the most soluble of the currently used anesthetic agents, indicating that the equilibration of inspired/brain partial pressures is the greatest. Although this property would seem to improve the safety profile of halothane, halothane is also the most potent of the inhalational anesthetics.[4][5]

Cardiorespiratory instability (i.e., hypotension, bradycardia), sensitizing the myocardium to catecholamine-induced arrhythmias, and mild liver dysfunction are relatively common side effects of halothane. Arrhythmias are especially common in neonates and children after the administration of halothane, particularly bradyarrhythmias.[6] Additional adverse effects of halothane include hepatotoxicity (type 1) and hepatitis (type 2), which will be the focus of this activity. Type 1 hepatotoxicity is a transient, benign liver injury that is self-limiting; this differs from Type 2 hepatotoxicity, which is fulminant liver damage that can lead to liver failure, associated with a high mortality rate.


Clinicians no longer commonly use halothane in today's operating rooms in developed countries. However, underserved communities and countries with fewer resources may not have access to other options, making halothane toxicity an ongoing concern. Obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease positively correlate with hepatic dysfunction; therefore, it is no surprise that halothane toxicity is more prevalent in this cohort.[7][8] Apart from the liver dysfunction associated with obesity predisposing patients to halothane’s adverse effects, halothane also accumulates in the adipose tissue. Delayed excretion and theoretically prolonged exposure to potentially reactive halothane metabolites are also thought to increase the obese patient’s risk.[9]

Evidence implicates an imbalance between oxygen supply and demand in the development of halothane-induced liver injury. Rats treated with phenobarbitone, inducing hypoxia without anesthesia, exhibited centrilobular necrosis similar to that seen with halothane exposure.[10][11]

Genetic susceptibility also associates with halothane hepatitis in several studies. The extent of halothane metabolized, particularly through the reductive pathway, differs due to one’s genetics.[12][13] A case series of three closely related women suggested further genetic contributions to halothane hepatitis susceptibility.[13] Please refer to the pathophysiology and pharmacokinetics sections for additional information.


Hepatotoxicity due to halothane administration is relatively common and is a major factor in its rapidly declining use. Type 1 hepatotoxicity has an incidence of 20 to 30%. A comprehensive report in 1969 demonstrated an incidence of type 2 hepatotoxicity (hepatitis) of 1 case per 6000 to 20000 cases, with fatal cases occurring approximately once in 35000 patients following a single exposure to the anesthetic.[6][14][15] This incidence of fatal cases increases to approximately 1 in 1000 patients following multiple exposures.[16][17][18] Following this study was a large-scale review in the United Kingdom, which showed similar results.[19] To put this into perspective, there is only a single case of hepatotoxicity confirmed after the administration of desflurane, and 2 cases per 1 million after enflurane. By the 1970s, halothane was the most common cause of drug-induced liver failure.[20][21]

Halothane-induced hepatotoxicity has a female to male ratio of two to one.  Younger patients are less likely to be affected; 80% of the cases are typically in patients 40 years or older. Other risk factors include obesity and underlying liver dysfunction.[3][19][22] Medications such as phenobarbital, alcohol, and isoniazid may play a role in affecting CYP2E1 metabolism, increasing one’s risk.[23][24][25]

A study was completed that administered halothane or enflurane during spontaneous ventilation to 50 children. The study found an incidence of cardiac arrhythmias of 72% in children who were administered halothane during spontaneous breathing and 32% during enflurane anesthesia with a p-value less than 0.05. This study also showed that 41.3% of those arrhythmias were of ventricular origin in the halothane group compared to only 2.8% in the enflurane group.[26]


Liver injury due to drugs often categorizes into two patterns: predominantly bile duct injury or predominantly hepatocyte injury, although liver injury often results in a combination of the two types. Halothane hepatic injury falls under the latter category of predominantly hepatocyte damage.[27][28][29]

Halothane hepatotoxicity can subdivide into two categories: type 1 (mild), and type 2 (fulminant). The causes of Type 1 and Type 2 hepatotoxicities are not fully understood but are believed to be completely separate disease processes.

Type 1 hepatotoxicity is much more common and has a self-limiting course. Although the mechanism of hepatotoxicity remains unknown, there is a hypothesis that when halothane is broken down via the cytochrome P450 system, it biotransforms into reactive intermediates. Halothane metabolism is in the range of 20 to 30% compared with 1% for sevoflurane. Metabolism via oxidation and reduction are simultaneous via CYP2E1/CYP2A6, and CYP3A4/CYP2A6 pathways, respectively, depending on oxygen tension.[30][31][32][33]

Type 1 hepatotoxicity is believed to be secondary to the 1 to 3% of halothane metabolized via the reductive pathway, leading to increased hepatocyte hypoxemia and subsequent injury. Free radical intermediates chlorotrifluoroethane (CTE) or chlorodifluoroethene (CDE) get created in the reductive pathway.[34][35] Although the free radicals are not the sole mechanism of injury, they are the cause of inactivation and destruction of CYP450, resulting in elevation of aminotransferase.[36]

Apart from type 1 hepatotoxicity, which occurs in approximately 20% to 30% of patients, halothane may also cause hepatitis (type 2 hepatotoxicity). The immune system has been determined to play an integral role in the development of halothane hepatitis. Liver trifluoroacetyl (TFA) protein adducts are created via the oxidative biotransformation of halothane, resulting in an antibody-mediated reaction which causes hepatitis.[36][37]

Cardiac instability, particularly in children, is another side effect limiting the use of halothane. Infants and children have a relatively higher parasympathetic tone compared with that of adults. This higher baseline tone, paired with halothane’s negative chronotropic properties, may induce bradycardia or asystole.[11]


A liver biopsy is an option in suspected cases of halothane hepatotoxicity. The liver biopsy most commonly shows centrilobular necrosis and yellow atrophy. However, these findings are equivalent to those of fulminant viral hepatitis making it hard to differentiate the two.[37][38]


General anesthesia via halothane takes place via several ion channels which ultimately depress nerve conduction, breathing, and cardiac contractility. Halothane binds potassium channels in cholinergic neurons, producing an immobilizing effect. Hyperpolarization of NMDA and calcium channels also occur with halothane administration.

The association between repeat exposure to halothane and hepatotoxicity has led to the hypothesis of halothane itself inducing drug-metabolizing enzymes. Therefore, when recent administration of halothane has occurred, the liver is more susceptible to injury, as these enzymes may still undergo alteration. Microsomal enzyme induction in both adults and children has occurred with halothane use.[27][28][39][40]

History and Physical

Type 1 halothane hepatotoxicity can occur with or without prior exposure to halothane. It is seen in 20 to 30% of patients, indicated by a postoperative elevation in serum aminotransferases.[24][41] This hepatotoxicity is asymptomatic in most patients, but symptoms such as nausea, fever, and lethargy can present.  Symptoms can occur within hours after surgery and are typically self-limiting over 1 to 2 weeks.

Type 2 halothane hepatotoxicity (hepatitis) leads to necrosis and liver failure with a high mortality rate.[42] Within the first 2 to 14 days after halothane exposure, 75% of patients with type 2 hepatotoxicity present with a mix of jaundice, hepatomegaly, fever, anorexia, myalgias, nausea, diffuse rash, and encephalopathy. A hallmark clinical presentation is a mixture of a high fever, tender hepatomegaly, and jaundice starting two to three days post halothane exposure. 


Postoperative hepatic dysfunction may have several etiologies. Therefore, halothane hepatotoxicity generally is a diagnosis of exclusion of other more common causes, e.g., infection, hypotension, or other medications.[16][41]

After a thorough history and physical exam, the next step in diagnosing halothane hepatotoxicity is to obtain laboratory studies. A complete blood count (CBC) with differential may show leukocytosis or eosinophilia. Serum transaminase and bilirubin levels become elevated in the majority of cases. Aminotransferase levels often return to normal without treatment in one to two weeks, especially in the case of type 1 hepatotoxicity.[43]

Halothane-related antibodies can present via an enzyme-linked immunosorbent. The majority of patients do not have an immune response to the liver trifluoroacetyl (TFA) protein byproducts. Molecular mimicry of TFA protein byproducts via the E2 subunit protein may increase one’s susceptibility of halothane hepatitis. 

A liver biopsy can be performed, which would show massive centrilobular liver necrosis.[38][41][42] However, this is not specific to halothane hepatitis. Eosinophilia occurs in 40% of cases of halothane hepatitis, which is congruent with an immuno-allergic mechanism. A subset of patients present with acute liver failure, hepatic encephalopathy, and elevated aminotransferases.[42][44] If the patient is in fulminant liver failure, other liver tests that are not specific to halothane hepatotoxicity may be abnormal, such as prolonged prothrombin time (PT) and/or a prolonged international normalized ratio (INR).

A case series focusing on children with reported halothane hepatitis demonstrated an incidence of halothane-related antibodies in six of the seven children studied, which is statistically similar to that of adults. This data suggests the validity of performing a similar workup in children.[45]

Treatment / Management

Halothane hepatitis is largely a diagnosis of exclusion, making its initial treatment similar to any other form of fulminant hepatitis. Depending upon each individual case, supportive therapy consists of:

  • Fluid and electrolyte balance
  • Correcting coagulation alterations
  • Managing hypoglycemia 
  • Supporting ventilation
  • Supporting hemodynamics
  • Oral lactulose/restricting protein intake

The treatment for both types of halothane hepatotoxicity is supportive measures.[46] There is minimal to no data to support glucocorticoids in the setting of halothane hepatotoxicity. However, there is a single case report showing complete resolution after glucocorticoid initiation, indicating steroids are still selectively used in practice.[47]

Type 2 halothane hepatitis is severe and requires close monitoring if suspected, as supportive care for these patients is much more intensive and needs to start immediately. A liver transplant is usually necessary once the acute liver failure is imminent, despite best supportive measures.

Differential Diagnosis

Postoperative jaundice has a broad differential diagnosis that includes general surgery complications, bile-duct surgery or complications, sepsis, hepatotoxicity from other drugs, hemolysis, viral hepatitis, and hypoxic hepatic injury. Due to the broad differential diagnosis, halothane hepatitis remains a diagnosis of exclusion.[24][29][41][44]

There are not many randomized controlled trials comparing the development of halothane hepatitis as compared with hepatitis development from other inhalational agents, due to the robust animal data behind halothane’s adverse side effect profile. There are several major rat-based studies from the 1980s that established the mechanism of injury, often referenced throughout the halothane literature.[10][11]


The prognosis of type 1 halothane hepatoxicity is much better than that of type 2 hepatitis; it is often self-remitting over several weeks, leaving little to no long-term dysfunction in the majority of cases.  Type 2 halothane hepatotoxicity has a 50% mortality rate once it has progressed to acute liver failure, and as high as 80% if hepatic encephalopathy has developed.[46] Urgent liver transplantation is required if acute liver failure progresses. 


In summary, halothane carries associations with two forms of hepatotoxicity: type 1 (benign) and type 2 (fulminant hepatitis). Type 1 is associated with increased serum aminotransferase levels with possible mild self-limiting symptoms. Type 2 halothane hepatotoxicity is associated with severe hepatitis, acute liver failure, and an elevated mortality rate. Another major complication of halothane is cardiac instability, particularly in children.

Deterrence and Patient Education

Patient education is not the most significant barrier in preventing halothane adverse effects such as hepatitis, as patients are not typically aware of the medications used for their anesthetic. The greatest risk factor is exposure to halothane, followed by previous exposure, obesity, and genetic susceptibility. Patients should receive education about weight management and personal/family history before being exposed to halothane.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

In most cases, halothane toxicity presents after a few days or weeks. These patients often first present to the primary care provider or nurse practitioner who must obtain a history of halothane use in the presence of liver dysfunction. A liver specialist and a gastroenterologist must be involved early in the care of these patients.

The most effective way of enhancing healthcare outcomes relative to halothane toxicity is to limit its use; this is particularly true in patients with prior exposure to halothane since the incidence of hepatic necrosis increases to 1 to 1000 with repeat exposure.[16] It is also vital to understand the additional increased effects of halothane on children and to use it as sparingly as possible in this population.[48] In situations where halothane is in use by necessity, protocols should be established that prioritize patient and health care worker education of the risks of halothane along with increasing specific monitoring to identify the development of liver dysfunction as soon as possible so that supportive care can initiate promptly. The pharmacist, anesthesiologist, and nurse anesthetist should collaborate on the dosing and administration of halothane and have the necessary supportive pharmacological agents at the ready in the event of toxicity. They should further urge the patient to wear an ID bracelet indicating an adverse reaction to halothane to avoid using the anesthetic in the future. Only through an interprofessional team approach can the morbidity of halothane toxicity be reduced. [Level V]

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Halothane Toxicity - Questions

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A 43-year-old woman is being evaluated for a fever on a postoperative day 1 after undergoing an elective laparoscopic cholecystectomy 4 days ago. The surgery was done via a halothane anesthetic plan. During the procedure, she had an episode of hypotension that quickly resolved with intravenous fluids; there were no other intraoperative complications. The patient has no medical history and has been taking acetaminophen-hydrocode for pain control. Temperature is 38.2 C (100.8 F), blood pressure is 122/84 mmHg, and a pulse is 92/min. Abdominal examination demonstrates mild tenderness around the incision but no erythema or discharge. Cardiac and lung exams are unchanged. Laboratory results are as follows: Complete blood count Hematocrit 33% Leukocytes 4,500/mm3 Liver function studies: Total bilirubin .75 mg/dL Alkaline phosphatase 157 U/L Aspartate aminotransferase 62 U/L Alanine aminotransferase 74 U/L Right upper quadrant ultrasonography demonstrates normal-sized biliary ducts and no free fluid. What is the prognosis of the patients current liver injury?

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A 31-year-old man is brought to the emergency department due to 1 day of progressive confusion and drowsiness. He was discharged on post-op day 2 after an uncomplicated hernia repair that occurred via a halothane anesthetic plan. His symptoms started with fever, malaise, nausea, vomiting, and anorexia in the morning. The patient has no significant medical history and takes acetaminophen for occasional headaches. He has had several bisexual relationships and uses condoms inconsistently. His temperature is 37.9 C (100.2 F), blood pressure is 108/66 mmHg, and the pulse is 112/min. The patient is somnolent and wakes to painful stimuli; he is disoriented but follows simple instructions. Physical examination shows jaundice, asterixis, and tender hepatomegaly. There are no stigmata of chronic liver disease. You suspected acute liver failure due to halothane toxicity. Which of the following laboratory studies is most indicative of acute (fulminant) liver failure in this patient?

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A 37-year-old male had an appendectomy in a rural hospital in Guatemala via a halothane anesthetic. He has a past medical history of obesity, hypertension, and adult-onset attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder controlled with medication. He is found to have elevated liver enzymes postoperatively due to the use of halothane. Which of the following predisposing factor is present in this patient?

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A 16-year-old extremely obese patient undergoes an urgent open reduction and internal fixation of the right clavicle after a farming accident. The patient's anesthesia care includes halothane. He starts experiencing a fever 38 C (100.4 F) and lethargy 12 hours postoperatively. Lab tests are ordered. Blood pressure is stable at 118/72 mmHg, the pulse is 96/min, and respirations are 14/min. The following labs were obtained: Complete blood count reveals hemoglobin 13.8 g/L, erythrocyte count 4.6 mln/mm3, hematocrit levels of 42 %, platelets are 290,000/mm3, MCV 95 fl, and leukocytes are 5500/mm3. Serum chemistry shows blood urea nitrogen 32 mg/dL and creatinine 1.9 mg/dL. Liver function studies reveal total bilirubin 0.9 mg/dL, direct bilirubin 0.2 mg/dL, alkaline phosphatase 220 U/L, aspartate aminotransferase 244 U/L, alanine aminotransferase 255 U/L, and INR 1.6 (normal 0.8-1.2). Chemistry panel shows serum sodium 142 mEq/L, serum potassium 3.9 mEq/L, chloride 105 mEq/L, bicarbonate 26 mEq/L, blood urea nitrogen (BUN) 21 mEq/L, serum creatinine 0.9 mg/dL, calcium 8.3 mg/dL, blood glucose 92 mg/dL. Two consecutive blood cultures are negative. What is the most likely mechanism of injury demonstrating these abnormal labs?

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An unidentified patient is brought to the nearest rural hospital following a traumatic car accident. An emergent exploratory laparotomy for hypovolemic shock is performed via a predominantly halothane based anesthetic plan. On day 11 of hospitalization, he reports jaundice, abdominal swelling, nausea, vomiting, malaise, and confusion. The following labs were obtained: Complete blood count reveals hematocrit levels of 42 %, platelets are 160,000/mm3, and leukocytes are 9000/mm3. Serum chemistry shows blood urea nitrogen 32 mg/dL and creatinine 1.9 mg/dL. Liver function studies reveal total bilirubin 3.3 mg/dL, alkaline phosphatase 220 U/L, aspartate aminotransferase 3207 U/L, alanine aminotransferase 4180 U/L and INR 1.6 (normal 0.8-1.2). What is the next most appropriate step in the management of this patient?

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A 4-year-old boy has a medical history complicated by alpha thalassemia intermediate and previous abdominal surgery for intussusception as a toddler. Three days ago, he also had surgery for a congenital cardiac defect at a rural hospital. Intraoperatively the case was complicated by hypotension and refractory bradyarrhythmias. Which of the following is the mechanism leading to this child's intraoperative complications?

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A 25-year-old woman undergoes a complicated laparoscopic surgery for cholecystectomy. The anesthesia plan consisted of halothane, nitrous oxide, fentanyl, and vecuronium. Five units of blood were administered intraoperatively. Two days later, the patient is experiencing excruciating abdominal pain. Rebound tenderness is present on physical exam. The patient is febrile, diaphoretic, tachycardiac, but normotensive. The patient has mildly increased serum transaminase concentrations, markedly increased alkaline phosphatase, and an increased direct bilirubin concentration. A retained common duct stone with anastomotic dehiscence is suspected. The patient is brought back to the operating room urgently; however, a different anesthesia plan is used. What is the mechanism behind the decision to use a different plan?

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Halothane Toxicity - References


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