Popular weight-loss drugs like Wegovy may raise risk of complications under anesthesia

Patients who take blockbuster drugs like Wegovy or Ozempic for weight loss may face life-threatening complications if they need surgery or other procedures that require empty stomachs for anesthesia. This summer’s guidance to halt the medication for up to a week may not go far enough, either.

Some anesthesiologists in the U.S. and Canada say they’ve seen growing numbers of patients on the weight-loss drugs who inhaled food and liquid into their lungs while sedated because their stomachs were still full — even after following standard instructions to stop eating for six to eight hours in advance.

The drugs can slow digestion so much that it puts patients at increased risk for the problem, called pulmonary aspiration, which can cause dangerous lung damage, infections and even death, said Dr. Ion Hobai, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“This is such a serious sort of potential complication that everybody who takes this drug should know about it,” said Hobai, who was among the first to flag the issue.

Nearly 6 million prescriptions for the class of drugs that include Wegovy and Ozempic were written between January and May in the U.S. for people who don’t have diabetes, according to Komodo Health, a health care technology company. The drugs induce weight loss by mimicking the actions of hormones, found primarily in the gut, that kick in after people eat. They also target signals between the gut and the brain that control appetite and feelings of fullness, and by slowing how fast the stomach empties.

In June, the American Society of Anesthesiologists issued guidance advising patients to skip daily weight-loss medications on the day of surgery and hold off on weekly injections for a week before any sedation procedures. Dr. Michael Champeau, the group’s president, said the action was based on anecdotal reports of problems — including aspiration — from around the country.

It’s not clear how many patients taking the anti-obesity drugs may be affected by the issue. But because the consequences can be so dire, Hobai and a group of colleagues decided to speak out. Writing in the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia, they called for the drug to be stopped for even longer — about three weeks before sedation.

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