Evidence-Based Reviews

Agitation in children and adolescents: Diagnostic and treatment considerations

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Pharmacotherapy should be used only when behavioral interventions have been unsuccessful. Key considerations for using psychotropic medications to address agitation in children and adolescents are summarized in Table 2.25

Pharmacotherapy for agitation in pediatric patients: Clinical pearls

Antipsychotics, particularly second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs), have been commonly used to manage acute agitation in children and adolescents, and there has been an upswing in the use of these medications in the United States in the last several years.28 Research indicates that males, children and adolescents in foster care, and those with Medicaid have been the more frequent youth recipients of SGAs.29 Of particular concern is the prevalence of antipsychotic use among children younger than age 6. In the last few decades, there has been an increase in the prescription of antipsychotics for children younger than age 6, particularly for disruptive behavior and aggression.30 In a study of preschool-age Medicaid patients in Kentucky, 70,777 prescriptions for SGAs were given to 6,915 children <6 years of age; 73% of these prescriptions were for male patients.30 Because there is a lack of controlled studies examining the safety and efficacy of SGAs among children and adolescents, especially with long-term use, further research is needed and caution is warranted.28

The FDA has approved risperidone (for patients age 5 to 16) and oral aripiprazole (for patients age 6 to 17) for treating irritability related to autism spectrum disorder; irritability can contribute to or exacerbate agitation. The FDA has also approved several antipsychotic medications for treating schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in adolescents of varying ages. However, SGAs have also been found to be used commonly among young patients who do not meet criteria for autism, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Aggression is the most common symptom for which SGAs are used among the pediatric population.29 Careful and judicious weighing of the risks and benefits is warranted before using antipsychotic medications in a child or adolescent.

Externalizing disorders among children and adolescents tend to get treated with antipsychotics.28 A Canadian study examining records of 6,916 children found that most children who had been prescribed risperidone received it for ADHD or conduct disorder, and most patients had not received laboratory testing for monitoring the antipsychotic medication they were taking.31 In a 2018 study examining medical records of 120 pediatric patients who presented to an ED in British Columbia with agitation, antipsychotics were the most commonly used medications for patients with autism spectrum disorder; most patients received at least 1 dose.14

For children and adolescents with agitation or aggression who were admitted to inpatient units, IM olanzapine and ziprasidone were found to exhibit similar efficacy when used to treat agitation.14,21,32

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