Chlorhexidine allergy in the perioperative setting: a narrative review

Br J Anaesth. 2019 Jul;123(1):e95-e103. doi: 10.1016/j.bja.2019.01.033. Epub 2019 Apr 5.


Chlorhexidine is an antiseptic with a broad spectrum of activity and a persistent effect on skin. Consequently, it has become an ubiquitous antiseptic in healthcare and the community. As use has become widespread, increasing numbers of cases of allergy have been reported in the literature, including cases of anaphylaxis to chlorhexidine gels used on mucous membranes, chlorhexidine-impregnated devices such as central venous catheters, chlorhexidine preparations used on wounds and broken skin, and cases after dental procedures. Numerous governmental warnings have been issued over recent decades to warn of the risk of allergy to chlorhexidine on mucosal surfaces or in medical devices. Whilst the number of published cases likely underestimates the true prevalence of reactions, we retrospectively surveyed clinics with experience in investigating perioperative chlorhexidine allergy. Despite differences in investigation practice before the survey took place, 13 clinics responded which together had diagnosed 252 cases of anaphylaxis to chlorhexidine, and cases of delayed allergy. In eight of 13 clinics, chlorhexidine was within the top four most commonly diagnosed causes of perioperative anaphylaxis. Despite this, the incidence of anaphylaxis to chlorhexidine is low given that patients are very commonly exposed. Sensitisation of healthcare workers can occur, but is uncommon. Before exposing patients to this antiseptic, consideration of the potential risk vs benefit should be undertaken, particularly for higher risk exposures, such as mucosal exposure or i.v. exposure via impregnated lines. Difficulties exist in protecting patients with known allergies from re-exposure to chlorhexidine, which would be improved with uniform labelling and chlorhexidine product registers.

Keywords: adverse effects; allergens; anaphylaxis; chlorhexidene; drug hypersensitivity; perioperative; survey.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local / adverse effects*
  • Chlorhexidine / adverse effects*
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / diagnosis*
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Intraoperative Complications / diagnosis
  • Intraoperative Complications / therapy*
  • Postoperative Complications / diagnosis
  • Postoperative Complications / therapy*


  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local
  • Chlorhexidine