1-Minute Consult

How should I treat acute agitation in pregnancy?

Author and Disclosure Information



Acute agitation in the pregnant patient should be treated as an obstetric emergency, as it jeopardizes the safety of the patient and fetus, as well as others in the emergency room. Uncontrolled agitation is associated with obstetric complications such as preterm delivery, placental abnormalities, postnatal death, and spontaneous abortion.1

Current data on the reproductive safety of drugs commonly used to treat acute agitation—benzodiazepines, typical (first-generation) antipsychotics, atypical (second-generation) antipsychotics, and diphenhydramine—suggest no increase in risk beyond the 2% to 3% risk of congenital malformations in the general population when used in the first trimester.2,3


Agitation is defined as the physical manifestation of internal distress, due to an underlying medical condition such as delirium or to a psychiatric condition such as acute intoxication or withdrawal, psychosis, mania, or personality disorder.4

For the agitated pregnant woman who is not belligerent at presentation, triage should start with a basic assessment of airways, breathing, and circulation, as well as vital signs and glucose level.5 A thorough medical history and a description of events leading to the presentation, obtained from the patient or the patient’s family or friends, are vital for narrowing the diagnosis and deciding treatment.

The initial evaluation should include consideration of delirium, trauma, intracranial hemorrhage, coagulopathy, thrombocytopenia, amniotic and venous thromboembolism, hypoxia and hypercapnia, and signs and symptoms of intoxication or withdrawal from substances such as alcohol, cocaine, phencyclidine, methamphetamine, and substituted cathinones (“bath salts”). From 20 weeks of gestation to 6 weeks postpartum, eclampsia should also be considered in the differential diagnosis.1 Ruling out these conditions is important since the management of each differs vastly from the protocol for agitation secondary to psychosis, mania, or delirium.


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has discontinued its pregnancy category labeling system that used the letters A, B, C, D, and X to convey reproductive and lactation safety. The new system, established under the FDA Pregnancy and Lactation Labeling Rule,6 provides descriptive, up-to-date explanations of risk, as well as previously absent context regarding baseline risk for major malformations in the general population to help with informed decision-making.7 This allows the healthcare provider to interpret the risk for an individual patient.


Reproductive safety of first-generation (ie, typical) neuroleptics such as haloperidol is supported by extensive data accumulated over the past 50 years.2,3,8 No significant teratogenic effect has been documented with this drug class,7 although a 1996 meta-analysis found a small increase in the relative risk of congenital malformations in offspring exposed to low-potency antipsychotics compared with those exposed to high-potency antipsychotics.2

In general, mid- and high-potency antipsychotics (eg, haloperidol, perphenazine) are often recommended because they are less likely to have associated sedative or hypotensive effects than low-potency antipsychotics (eg, chlorpromazine, perphenazine), which may be a significant consideration for a pregnant patient.2,8

There is a theoretical risk of neonatal extrapyramidal symptoms with exposure to first-generation antipsychotics in the third trimester, but the data to support this are from sparse case reports and small observational cohorts.9


Newer antipsychotics such as the second-generation antipsychotics, available since the mid-1990s, are increasingly used as primary or adjunctive therapy across a wide range of psychiatric disorders.10 Recent data from large, prospective cohort studies investigating reproductive safety of these agents are reassuring, with no specific patterns of organ malformation.11,12


Recent studies of antihistamines such as diphenhydramine have not reported any risk of major malformations with first-trimester exposure to antihistamines.13,14 Dose-dependent anticholinergic adverse effects of antihistamines can induce or exacerbate delirium and agitation, although these effects are classically seen in elderly, nonpregnant patients.15 Thus, given the paucity of adverse effects and the low risk, diphenhydramine is considered safe to use in pregnancy.13

Next Article:

A woman, age 35, with new-onset ascites

Related Articles