Evidence-Based Reviews

Agitation in children and adolescents: Diagnostic and treatment considerations

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Understanding the cause and a judicious approach to treatment are critical.



Managing agitation—verbal and/or motor restlessness that often is accompanied by irritability and a predisposition to aggression or violence—can be challenging in any patient, but particularly so in children and adolescents. In the United States, the prevalence of children and adolescents presenting to an emergency department (ED) for treatment of psychiatric symptoms, including agitation, has been on the rise.1,2

Similar to the multitude of causes of fever, agitation among children and adolescents has many possible causes.3 Because agitation can pose a risk for harm to others and/or self, it is important to manage it proactively. Other than studies that focus on agitation in pediatric anesthesia, there is a dearth of studies examining agitation and its treatment in children and adolescents. There is also a scarcity of training in the management of acute agitation in children and adolescents. In a 2017 survey of pediatric hospitalists and consultation-liaison psychiatrists at 38 academic children’s hospitals in North America, approximately 60% of respondents indicated that they had received no training in the evaluation or management of pediatric acute agitation.4 In addition, approximately 54% of participants said they did not screen for risk factors for pediatric agitation, even though 84% encountered the condition at least once a month, and as often as weekly.4

This article reviews evidence on the causes and treatments of agitation in children and adolescents. For the purposes of this review, child refers to a patient age 6 to 12, and adolescent refers to a patient age 13 to 17.

Identifying the cause

Addressing the underlying cause of agitation is essential. It’s also important to manage acute agitation while the underlying cause is being investigated in a way that does not jeopardize the patient’s emotional or physical safety.

Agitation in children or teens can be due to psychiatric causes such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or due to medical conditions such as delirium, traumatic brain injury, or other conditions (Table 1).

Psychiatric and medical causes of agitation in pediatric patients

In a 2005 study of 194 children with agitation in a pediatric post-anesthesia care unit, pain (27%) and anxiety (25%) were found to be the most common causes of agitation.3 Anesthesia-related agitation was a less common cause (11%). Physiologic anomalies were found to be the underlying cause of agitation in only 3 children in this study, but were undiagnosed for a prolonged period in 2 of these 3 children, which highlights the importance of a thorough differential diagnosis in the management of agitation in children.3

Assessment of an agitated child should include a comprehensive history, physical exam, and laboratory testing as indicated. When a pediatric patient comes to the ED with a chief presentation of agitation, a thorough medical and psychiatric assessment should be performed. For patients with a history of psychiatric diagnoses, do not assume that the cause of agitation is psychiatric.

Continue to: Psychiatric causes


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