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Valproate Toxicity Treatment & Management

  • Author: Asim A Abbasi, MD, FAAP; Chief Editor: Asim Tarabar, MD  more...
Updated: Dec 04, 2015

Approach Considerations

Treatment of patients with valproate (valproic acid [VPA]) toxicity is mainly supportive, commonly including the following:

  • Management of airway, breathing, and circulation (ABCs)
  • Oxygenation
  • Administration of intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Monitoring

However, respiratory depression and cardiopulmonary arrest have been documented. Proceed with resuscitative maneuvers (eg, intubation or defibrillation) if appropriate. Ventilate the patient, and provide circulatory assistance as needed. Treatment may also include decontamination, procedures to enhance elimination, and pharmacotherapy.

Depending on the level of toxicity, patients with a VPA overdose usually require admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) for continuous monitoring. Their condition may progressively deteriorate as VPA is absorbed and moves from the intravascular compartment to the central nervous system (CNS). Intestinal absorption after overdose may be delayed several hours.

Patients with overdose must be evaluated from a psychiatric point of view for plan of suicide or grave disability. After patients are medically cleared, they may be transferred to a psychiatric facility. However, this disposition depends on the patient’s symptoms and the amount of ingestion.

In one multicenter case series of 134 patients with VPA ingestions (80 with toxic VPA levels at admission), the mean hospital stay for all patients was 44.7 hours (standard deviation, 28 h).[10]

After the patient’s condition is stabilized and he or she is discharged, an ongoing relationship between the patient and a mental health professional is recommended if the overdose was intentional.


Initial Stabilization and Resuscitation

Stabilize all acute life-threatening conditions. Ensure a patent airway. Intubate if necessary (eg, for the management of profound respiratory depression). Establish IV access.

Obtain information about the overdose, including the following:

  • Amount of pills
  • Dosage
  • Last date the prescription was filled (the bottles should be brought to the hospital if possible)

Check blood sugar levels with a bedside test, or administer a bolus of dextrose if bedside testing is not available.

Naloxone may be indicated if the patient has stupor or coma, depressed respiration, and small pupils (see Pharmacologic Therapy). Rare reports describe a positive response to naloxone in patients without findings of opiates on toxicology screening; the mechanism is unexplained.



Activated charcoal should be administered to patients presenting within 1 hour after ingestion of VPA unless contraindications are present. The optimum activated charcoal–to-toxin ratio is 10:1. If the patient presents more than 1 hour after the ingestion, activated charcoal may still be indicated because of the potentially delayed absorption with enteric-coated or extended-release preparations.

Whole-bowel irrigation (WBI) may be useful when large amounts of sustained-release products are ingested.


Procedures to Enhance Elimination

As levels rise, the percentage of valproic acid bound to protein decreases; procedures to enhance elimination may be considered.

Hemodialysis and hemoperfusion

Hemodialysis and hemoperfusion can decrease the elimination half-life of VPA, as described in many case series, reviews, and reports. One of the most dramatic reports describes hemoperfusion and hemodialysis in series, which reduced the half-life of VPA from 13 hours before treatment to 1.7 hours during hemodialysis.[14] When assessed 4 hours after treatment and within 20 hours of ingestion, the patient was alert, responsive, and capable of following commands.

However, indications for dialysis in this setting are not well established; some advocate hemodialysis in cases of refractory hemodynamic instability and metabolic acidosis that do not respond to fluid resuscitation. Ideally, hemodialysis should be started before the onset of hemodynamic compromise. It should be considered when VPA levels exceed 850-1000 mg/L; such high levels are associated with increased morbidity and mortality.

High-flux hemodialysis without hemoperfusion can substantially decrease the elimination half-life, as described in case reports of VPA overdose. In one case, high-flux hemodialysis was used in a 25-year-old patient who developed hypotension and lactic acidosis as VPA levels rose above 1200 mg/L. High-flux hemodialysis was performed for 4 hours.[15] The half-life was 2.74 hours during dialysis and 23.41 hours after hemodialysis. The patient recovered as her serum VPA levels declined.

Multiple other reports describe successful use of hemodialysis without hemoperfusion for severe VPA overdose. In fact, a review of the literature regarding high-flux dialysis and hemoperfusion for VPA overdose suggests that toxic concentrations of VPA can be effectively removed via high-flux dialysis without concomitant hemoperfusion. Use of this single method of elimination eliminates the associated risks that hemoperfusion may bring.

Continuous venovenous hemodialysis

In cases of hemodynamic compromise, continuous renal-replacement therapy, such as continuous venovenous hemodialysis (CVVHD), may improve the elimination half-life vis-à-vis the patient’s baseline function. Whether it may decrease the potential hemodynamic instability in comparison with standard dialysis (in particular, low-flux dialysis) is up for debate. One case report discusses a potentially fatal VPA overdose that did not respond to CVVHD but was successfully treated with low-flux hemodialysis.[16]

Multidose activated charcoal

Despite case reports in which multidose activated charcoal (MDAC) was found to decrease the serum half-life of VPA, this treatment did not affect the elimination half-life in volunteer studies. MDAC may be considered in conjunction with WBI in cases of massive ingestion or ingestion of extended-release products (see Decontamination).


Pharmacologic Therapy


Naloxone has been postulated to act as a gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) antagonist or to inhibit postsynaptic GABA transport due to VPA in addition to its opioid receptor antagonism. Isolated case reports have described reversal of sedation with naloxone. However, the administration of naloxone (including aggressive administration of a total of 30 mg) with no response has been reported.

The literature is conflicting with regard to the efficacy of naloxone in reversing VPA-induced coma. In one case report, administration of naloxone in 2 separate doses reversed coma with a VPA level of 487.8 mg/L.[17] On the other hand, in cases of severe valproate intoxication with plasma concentrations exceeding 850 mg/L, administration of naloxone has been unsuccessful.

Many medical toxicologists and pharmacologists believe that reversal of VPA-associated coma may actually be due to reversal of opiate/opioid effects in which an opioid/opiate was unsuspected or was not confirmed via urine toxicology screen (eg, a negative opiate screen on a drugs-of-abuse assay). Many opioids will not be confirmed by such assays, including fentanyl, oxycodone, and meperidine.


L-carnitine (levocarnitine) is the active form of carnitine and is an essential cofactor in the beta-oxidation of fatty acids in the liver. Long-term use of VPA is associated with depletion of serum carnitine levels. This depletion is due to 2 distinct mechanisms, as follows:

  • VPA combines with carnitine to form valproylcarnitine, which is freely excreted in urine
  • During treatment with VPA, renal reabsorption of both free carnitine and acylcarnitine is decreased

Ultimately, carnitine deficiency affects mitochondrial metabolism of VPA, as well as energy synthesis. Hyperammonemia may also develop with carnitine deficiency as the production of urea is disrupted within the mitochondria. Thus, carnitine deficiency plays a large role in the development of hyperammonemia and VPA-induced hyperammonemic encephalopathy. This development is associated with long-term or high-dose VPA use, as well as overdose. Carnitine also plays a direct role in the metabolism and elimination of VPA.

L-carnitine supplementation, then, is believed to provide benefit in the setting of valproate toxicity, particularly in patients who have concomitant hyperammonemia, encephalopathy, or hepatotoxicity.

One case report documented the use of L-carnitine oral supplementation in a patient with acute VPA overdose.[15] Before treatment, levels of beta-oxidation metabolites of VPA were low, and levels of omega and omega-1 metabolites were elevated. After treatment, the former increased, and the latter decreased. Toxic metabolites initially detected in the urine were no longer present after carnitine supplementation. Carnitine supplementation makes sense, physiologically, in cases where hepatotoxicity occurs or is potential.

A 2010 review concluded that more rigorous studies were needed to validate carnitine as an antidote for acute VPA overdose[18] ; however, current evidence suggests that it can be used for ingestions exceeding 100 mg/kg or ingestions expected to result in blood peak concentrations greater than 450 mg/L in conjunction with a decreasing level of consciousness. The same review recommended 100 mg/kg initially (by bolus over 2-3 minutes or infusion over 15-30 minutes), then 50 mg/kg (up to 3 g) IV every 8 hours until clinical improvement is seen.

The toxicity profile of L-carnitine has been found to be relatively benign. In a systematic review of 674 acute VPA overdoses, 55 doses of L-carnitine were given to 19 patients with isolated VPA ingestion, and 196 doses were given to patients with mixed overdoses that included VPA.[16] None of the patients became hypotensive or had an allergic reaction or other adverse effect.

L-carnitine is best administered in consultation with a regional poison control center certified by the American Association of Poison Control Centers or a medical toxicologist certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine or the American College of Medical Toxicology.

Despite the plausible physiologic rationale and the case reports documenting favorable outcomes, further studies (in particular, randomized controlled studies) are needed before the use of carnitine for valproate toxicity becomes a true standard of care.



Consult a regional poison control center certified by the American Association of Poison Control Centers or a medical toxicologist certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine or the American College of Medical Toxicology.

Consultation with a nephrologist may be necessary for emergency hemodialysis and hemoperfusion.

Consider consultation with a neurosurgeon if computed tomography (CT) of the head reveals severe cerebral edema. One case report discussed management of cerebral edema and increased intracranial pressure with ventriculostomy, hyperventilation to maintain a perfusion pressure at 60-70 mm Hg, and 1 dose of mannitol 25 g and dopamine 1-8 µg/kg/min.[19] If the patient’s illness necessitates ventriculostomy, high-flux hemodialysis or hemoperfusion to enhance elimination is appropriate.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Asim A Abbasi, MD, FAAP Instructor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Strong Memorial Hospital, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Asim A Abbasi, MD, FAAP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Kent R Olson, MD, FACEP Clinical Professor of Medicine and Pharmacy, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine; Medical Director, San Francisco Division, California Poison Control System

Kent R Olson, MD, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, American College of Medical Toxicology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Timothy J Wiegand, MD Director, Ruth A Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine and Emergency Medicine, University of Rochester Medical Center and Strong Memorial Hospital

Timothy J Wiegand, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, American College of Medical Toxicology, American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Asim Tarabar, MD Assistant Professor, Director, Medical Toxicology, Department of Emergency Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Yale-New Haven Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Fred Harchelroad, MD, FACMT, FAAEM, FACEP Attending Physician in Emergency Medicine, Excela Health System

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Herbert E Hern Jr, MD Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of California, San Francisco; Residency Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, Highland General Hospital

Herbert E Hern Jr, MD, is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lance W Kreplick, MD, FAAEM, MMM Medical Director of Hyperbaric Medicine, Fawcett Wound Management and Hyperbaric Medicine; Consulting Staff in Occupational Health and Rehabilitation, Company Care Occupational Health Services; President and Chief Executive Officer, QED Medical Solutions, LLC

Lance W Kreplick, MD, FAAEM, MMM, is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine and American College of Physician Executives

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

John T VanDeVoort, PharmD Regional Director of Pharmacy, Sacred Heart and St Joseph's Hospitals

John T VanDeVoort, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Health-System Pharmacists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The staff, faculty, and fellows of the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Poison Control Center contributed insight, review, and encouragement for this article.

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