Opioid tolerance and dependence in infants and children

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To review the definitions and scientific basis for opioid tolerance and dependence in neonates and older children; to assess objective methods for the clinical evaluation of opioid abstinence syndromes in this age group; and to suggest therapeutic strategies for the treatment of opioid abstinence in critically ill neonates and children.

Data Sources

The published literature on opioid tolerance and dependence in pediatric patients was reviewed. Data from current clinical practices, nursing procedures, and ongoing clinical research were evaluated.

Data Synthesis

Currently proposed mechanisms of opioid tolerance and dependence are assessed, with particular relevance to the developing human central nervous system. The validity and clinical role of currently available objective methods for the assessment of opioid abstinence in neonates and older infants are defined. The efficacy of various pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic modalities for the treatment of opioid abstinence is evaluated and compared, and a therapeutic approach based on receptor mechanisms, clinical monitoring data, and pharmacologic efficacy is suggested.


Important parallels for therapeutically-induced opioid tolerance and withdrawal may be drawn from the assessment and management of neonates born from opioidaddicted mothers. Opioid withdrawal can be prevented with appropriate weaning schedules, diagnosed by objective clinical methods, and treated by a variety of pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic means. Pharmacologic therapy includes the use of opioids, with adjuvant drugs such as diazepam, clonidine, or chlorpromazine. The pathophysiology and assessment of therapeutically induced opioid tolerance and withdrawal merit further research in critically ill pediatric patients. (Crit Care Med 1994; 22:334–342)

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