Histamine-releasing and allergenic properties of opioid analgesic drugs: resolving the two

Anaesth Intensive Care. 2012 Mar;40(2):216-35. doi: 10.1177/0310057X1204000204.


Opioid analgesics are amongst the most commonly administered drugs in hospitals. Whether natural or synthetic, they show some common structural features, morphine-like pharmacological action and binding specificity for complementary opioid receptors. Tramadol differs from the other opioid analgesics in possessing monoaminergic activity in addition to its affinity for the µ opioid receptor. Many opioids are potent histamine releasers producing a variety of haemodynamic changes and anaphylactoid reactions, but the relationship of the appearance of these effects to the histamine plasma concentration is complex and there is no direct and invariable relationship between the two. Studies of the histamine-releasing effects, chiefly centred on morphine, reveal variable findings and conclusions often due to a range of factors including differences in technical measurements, dose, mode of administration, site of injection, the anatomical distribution of histamine receptors and heterogeneity of patient responses. Morphine itself has multiple direct effects on the vasculature and other haemodynamically-active mediators released along with histamine contribute to the variable responses to opioid drug administration. Despite their heavy use and occasional apparent anaphylactic-like side-effects, immunoglobulin E antibody-mediated immediate hypersensitivity reactions to the drugs are not often encountered. Uncertainties associated with skin testing with these known histamine-releasers, and the general unavailability of opioid drug-specific immunoglobulin E antibody tests contribute to the frequent failure to adequately investigate and establish underlying mechanisms of reactions by distinguishing anaphylactoid from true anaphylactic reactions. Clinical implications for diagnosis of reactions and some speculations on the rarity of true Type 1 allergies to these drugs are presented.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / classification
  • Analgesics, Opioid / immunology
  • Anaphylaxis / chemically induced*
  • Anaphylaxis / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / etiology*
  • Histamine Release / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Mast Cells / drug effects
  • Mast Cells / metabolism
  • Receptors, Histamine / drug effects
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, Histamine