What is a PRN, and why is my child getting it???

The word PRN is thrown around casually by healthcare professionals as in “he was aggressive to staff, and the doctor gave him a PRN,” and “she took two PRNs for headache and went to sleep.”

P.R.N means pro re nata in Latin, or “as needed” medication. This is in contrast to the medication that is given on a scheduled basis. There are several situations where PRNs are used in a psychiatric hospital; some of these situations involve PRNs being given without explicit consent from the patient or the parent.

PRNs for aches, pains, and discomfort

When a child comes to the hospital, parents are often asked to give permission (consent) for several common medications which can be used as the need arises. Examples include, giving Tylenol or Motrin for headaches or cramps, Milk of Magnesia or Colace for stomach problems or constipation, Melatonin or Benadryl for insomnia, and Vistaril or Ativan for anxiety. There are numerous advantages to selecting PRNs early on (i.e. before they are needed): patients or parents can make an informed decision with the admitting doctor, take time to recall all the allergies and sensitivities that the patient may have, and what had worked in the past. This is also the time to discuss potential interactions and side effects of the PRNs.  The alternative is often rushed and haphazard. A parent may get a call at 3AM: “Your child has a headache and there is no consent for anything; what can we give him to help him get some rest?”

PRNs for behavioral emergencies

On occasion, parents are shocked to learn that their child received a medication that they did not explicitly consent to. This can take the following form: Dad gets a phone call from a nurse on the unit, who tells him that his daughter was threatening staff, was not responding to verbal de-escalation, became aggressive and violent, and then “the doctor ordered an injection of thorazine 50mg.” This is often upsetting and scary to parents and patients; families often imagine their child manhandled and “put down” with a tranquilizer. It may be reassuring to realize that these situations are likewise unpleasant and scary for the staff involved; the staff tries to avoid them at all cost for a number of reasons.

The underlying principle is that in an emergency, a consent from parents or the patient is desirable but not required. The best way to mitigate this, is to try to anticipate most common emergencies and plan ahead: most emergencies in a psychiatric hospital involve behavioral dysregulation, i.e. becoming a danger to self or others. Parents can and should discuss it on admission or at any time after that. For many parents this is highly unpleasant; nobody  wants to talk about a situation (no matter how rare or unlikely) where their child is at their worst. Others imagine that discussing emergency plan which involves injectable medication makes staff “trigger-happy,” and more likely to reach for the needle, when something does not go their way; this is false. Behavioral de-escalation plan should be a part of every patient’s plan of ttreatment, and parents, who know their child the best, could offer ideas as to what to do first. For example, for some children being able to write or color, or punch a pillow may be soothing. Staff would try these, and a number of other verbal techniques that they are trained at; nurses will reach for the needle only if the child 1) continues to be danger to self or others despite non-pharmacological interventions, and 2) unable to take similar medication by mouth.

What PRNs are used in behavioral emergencies

Hydroxyzine (brand names: Vistaril or Atarax) is an anti-histamine medication (similar to Benadryl), and, thus fairly sedating. It also relieves anxiety by acting on the serotonin system. It is a very safe medication, but is not available as injection (can only be given by mouth). It is often ordered as a PRN for mild agitation or anxiety.

Benadryl (generic name: diphenhydramine) is an anti-histamine medication that can be given by mouth or injected intramuscularly (IM). It is fairly sedating, but it also has “anti-cholinergic” effects. This means that at higher doses it causes the “fight-or-flight” response of the sympathetic system: increased heart rate, slowed bodily functions (leading to constipation, urinary retention), and at its worst, confusion and delirium. Despite this, it is considered a very safe medication in young people.

Thorazine, or chlorpromazine, is an anti-psychotic medication. It can be injected or given by mouth; it promotes sedation and also alleviates psychosis, which can contribute to severity of the behavioral emergency in some patients. It has anti-cholinergic effects, similar to Benadryl. As all antipsychotics, it can cause abnormal movements (e.g. a dystonic reaction). However, when it comes to emergency use of anti-psychotics in children, thorazine is generally preferred to other anti-psychotics, because the risk of a dystonic reaction is the lowest.

Haldol, or haloperidol, is another anti-psychotic medication, arguably more potent than thorazine when it comes to treating acute psychosis. It has a higher risk of a dystonic reaction, and, in an emergency, it should be given with another medication that treats dystonia (Benadryl, Cogentin, or Ativan)

Ativan (lorazepam) is benzodiazepine medication that quickly treats severe anxiety; it is also sedating and often used as sleeping-aid. Thus, it is often classified as anxiolytic-hypnotic. It is relatively safe when used in an emergency situations. Rarely, some children (particularly those with autism or developmental disabilities) may have a “paradoxical reaction” to Ativan, i.e. becoming more agitated, anxious, or aggressive.