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The following article was co-written by Nancy Gould, a Systemic Mastocytosis patient who was also a Retired American Nurse. See her helpful mastocytosis and mast cell activation videos on YouTube.  The article below has been reviewed by Dr. Cem Akin, one of the well known Mastocytosis physicians in the USA.  Nancy Gould granted permission for MSC to share this article as a safe surgery & emergency reference guide for Canadian medical professionals and Mastocytosis patients and caregivers.  MSC has made minor edits to reflect Canadian medications and MedicAlert Canada in the text below.


Nancy Gould and Regis (Gigi) Park


Surgery is a stressful experience. For a patient with mast cell disease, that stress is compounded by the possibility of complications including anaphylaxis, cardiovascular collapse, increased bleeding and even death. Therefore, general anesthesia is considered a high-risk procedure in patients with mast cell disease. It is critical that all members of the patient's operating team take proper precautions before, during, and after surgery to protect against potentially life-threatening mast cell activation.


It is imperative that good communication is established between the patient, referring physician, surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, and all others involved in the patient's care before, during, and after surgery. The surgeon must be aware of the patient's mast cell disease and inform themselves of the measures necessary to keep the patient as free of symptoms as possible. Additionally, the patient should contact the anesthesiologist assigned to their care as soon as possible after surgery has been scheduled. Both regional and general anesthetics can cause life-threatening complications. An experienced anesthesiologist is aware of medications known to cause mast cell degranulation and medications that stabilize mast cells. If the patient is satisfied that their anesthesiologist fully understands the importance of planning around the mast cell disease, it will go a long way toward calming the patient, which in turn may reduce mast cell mediator release.

Symptoms should be as well-controlled as possible in the days prior to surgery. The patient should carefully avoid known triggers of mast cell activity and should take their medications as prescribed. Those medications include H1 and H2 histamine receptor blockers such as Reactine (H1) and Ranitidine (H2). A mast cell stabilizer such as Nalcrom (sodium cromoglycate) or Ketotifen, and medications targeting other mast cell mediators should be taken regularly if they are part of the patient's normal drug regimen.

The patient's complete medication list should be reviewed by the surgical team prior to surgery and any necessary medication changes should be thoroughly discussed with the patient. For example, if the patient regularly takes a medication in the family known as beta blockers for blood pressure or heart rate abnormality, a change to another drug should be considered well before surgery is scheduled. Beta blockers are generally avoided in people with mast cell disease undergoing surgery because they interfere with an important natural control of mast cell activation. These drugs may also interfere with the use of epinephrine, which may be required if the patient has a major release of mast cell mediators resulting in low blood pressure during surgery. Other drugs that may interfere with control of blood pressure during surgery must be carefully reviewed by the patient's physician before the surgery. It may be necessary to perform a graded challenge procedure in the hospital under the supervision of an allergist and an anesthesiologist for certain medications if there is no history of exposure to that medication. This procedure usually starts with scratching the skin with a small amount of medication followed by injection of increasing amounts with careful monitoring after each injection. Resuscitation equipment and drugs including epinephrine must be readily available during the procedure.


For pre-operative control of anxiety and the reduction of mast cell activity, drugs in the benzodiazepine family (clonazepam, diazepam, midazolam, lorazepam) are usually effective. Some procedures require the patient not to take anything by mouth including medications after midnight of the night before the surgery. In this case, H1 and H2 blockers should be administered intravenously prior to the surgery. The use of corticosteroids, such as prednisone, has also been suggested although there is no evidence that the short-term use of steroids reduces the ability of mast cells to release the chemicals contained in their granules. However, corticosteroids may reduce the extent of other inflammatory reactions that result from mast cell activation.

A tube may be inserted into an artery and attached to a device allowing the anesthesiologist to vigilantly monitor blood pressure without having to periodically inflate a blood pressure cuff. In addition, a tube is inserted into a vein and securely taped in place, with intravenous (IV) fluids running to keep the patient well-hydrated in all surgeries involving general anesthesia or conscious sedation. This tube will also make it possible to immediately administer any emergency medications that may be needed.

In the operating room, the patient should not be allowed to become either too cold or over-heated. Warm blankets should be used, and all IV fluids should be warmed before they are given. In addition, there should be a minimum of noise and bustle around the patient prior to the administration of the anesthetic in order to reduce the possibility of anxiety-triggered mast cell mediator release.


An emergency situation may arise in which a person with mast cell disease requires immediate surgery. Wearing a MedicAlert bracelet could be a life-saver if this happens. Inscriptions vary depending upon the patient's specific needs, but generally include the patient's diagnosis and drug sensitivities. Emergency response team members can access more detailed information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from MedicAlert Canada by dialing the toll-free number on the bracelet.

It may also be helpful for mast cell patients to carry with them at all times emergency information, written on their physician's letterhead, which contains a list of current medications and other instructions for treatment in the event of severe symptoms.


Constant attention from the anesthesiologist is required for the safety of a patient with mast cell disease during surgery, as some of the early symptoms of mast cell mediator release such as flushing, hives, and early signs of obstructed breathing can be masked by the surgical drapes covering much of the patient's skin and by the use of an airway tube during anesthesia.

Should anaphylaxis occur during surgery, the drug thought to be responsible should be discontinued immediately and epinephrine should be administered. Airway support with 100% oxygen, IV replacement fluids to compensate for dilated blood vessels, H1 and H2 antihistamines, bronchodilators, and corticosteroids may also be given. Continuous IV epinephrine and other vasopressor drugs may be necessary to keep blood pressure from falling. However, it is important to keep in mind that not all hypotensive episodes during surgery are due to mast cell degranulation and anaphylaxis. A serum tryptase level obtained during the hypotensive episode and its comparison with pre-surgery or baseline level may be helpful to determine whether the episode is due to mast cell degranulation.


Records from prior surgeries should be examined and drugs tolerated in those procedures should be preferred if possible. Prior to the administration of any drugs associated with surgery, it is important that an IV is running, that epinephrine is available for immediate intramuscular (IM) or IV administration, and that emergency equipment is easily accessible in case of an adverse reaction.

IV preparations without preservative should be used.

Drugs to avoid include ethanol, dextran, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and toradol (unless the patient is already successfully taking a drug in this family), polymyxin B, amphoteracin B, quinine, dextromethorphan, beta-adrenergic blockers, and anticholinergic drugs as well as drugs mentioned in specific categories below.

Local anesthetics - True allergic reactions to local anesthetics resulting from mast cell degranulation are thought to be rare. Skin testing and graded challenge protocols have been published and may be administered by an allergist prior to the surgery if questions arise regarding the safe use of a local anesthetic in a patient. If possible, preservative-free local anesthetic should be used in these tests, as the preservative often present in local anesthetics can cause a mast cell reaction. In general, local anesthetics in the ester group should be avoided. This group includes procaine, chloroprocaine, tetracaine, and benzocaine. Anaphylactic reactions to local anesthetics in the amide group are rare. This group includes lidocaine, mepivacaine, prilocaine, bupivacaine, levobupivacaine, and ropivacaine.

Muscle relaxants - Muscle relaxants are the most likely group of the anesthetic drugs to cause anaphylaxis. Succinylcholine, D-tubocurarine, metocurine, doxacurium, atracurium, and mivacurium are more likely to cause a severe reaction than rocuronium or the so-called nondepolarizing muscle relaxants such as pancuronium or vercuronium. Some studies have reported increased numbers of anaphylactic reactions to rocuronium, however, so it may not be appropriate as the first choice for patients with mast cell disease.

Induction drugs - These are medications given to initiate anesthesia. It is rare for mast cell activation to occur in response to the use of propofol, ketamine, or the benzodiazepine drugs such as midazolam.

Inhaled anesthetics - Sevoflurane is an inhibitor of mast cell activation and is less likely to cause liver damage than other inhaled anesthetics in this family.

Opiates and opioids - Oral opioid drugs for pain relief may be tolerated by some mast cell disease patients, but their use should be approached with caution, beginning with very small doses. All drugs in this category are capable of causing mast cell mediator release.


Surgery for a person with mast cell disease involves exposure to drugs and conditions that may trigger extensive mast cell degranulation. It should be emphasized that it is often impossible to predict or avoid the risk of adverse events which may occur in surgery due to the administration of drugs and the procedure itself. The risk can be reduced, though, if the mast cell disease is brought to the attention of everyone involved in the patient's care and measures are taken to reduce the possibility of mast cell mediator release. Careful planning is important, beginning from the time a need for surgery has been defined and continuing through the immediate pre-operative period, anesthesia, surgery, and recovery. The choice of drugs is of major importance, and the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, the nursing staff, the patient's physician, and the patient should form a working team to ensure that surgery presents the fewest possible dangers for the patient.

Neither Mastocytosis Society Canada nor the authors intend that this information replace medical advice given by the patient's doctor. Patients are encouraged to consult with their doctor regarding medications and procedures related to surgery.


Hazards in operative management of patients with systemic mastocytosis; HW Scott Jr, WCV Parris, PC Sandidge, JA Oates, LJ Roberts II; Annals of Surgery, May 1983;197(5):507-514

Anesthetic management of systemic mastocytosis: experience with 42 cases; WCV Parris, HW Scott, and BE Smith; Anesthesia and Analgesia (1986)65:S117 (Abstract)

Urticaria Pigmentosa: An anesthetic challenge; Eric P Greenblatt, Linda Chen; Journal of Clinical Anesthesia, March/April 1990;2:108-115

Mastocytosis: Perioperative considerations; VA Goins; AORN Journal December 1991;54(6):1229-1238

Anesthesia in a patient with malignant systemic mastocytosis using a total intravenous anesthetic technique; A Borgeat and YA Ruetsch; Anesthesia and Analgesia (1998);86:442-444

Treatment of systemic mast cell disorders; AS Worobec; Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America (June 2000);14(3):659-687

Treatment of mastocytosis: pharmacologic basis and current concepts; G Marone, G Spadaro, F Granata, M Triggiani; Leukemia Research, July 2001;25:583-594

Mastocytose: Anesthesie generale par remifentanil et sevoflurane; L Auvray, B Letourneau, M Freysz; Ann Fr Anesth Reanim 2001;20:635-638 (article in French)

Mastocytosis: Current concepts in diagnosis and treatment; L Escribano, C Akin, M Castells, A Orfao, DD Metcalfe; Annuals of Hematology (2002);81:677-690

Anaphylaxis during the perioperative period; DL Hepner and MC Castells; Anesthesia and Analgesia 2003;97:1381-1395

The authors wish to thank Cem Akin MD, PhD, for his review of this article.