Ingestion of 750 mg or more by an adult may result in severe toxicity. The effects in overdose will be potentiated by simultaneous ingestion of alcohol and other psychotropic drugs.

Overdose effects are mainly due to anticholinergic (atropine-like) effects at autonomic nerve endings and in the brain. There is also a quinidine-like effect on the myocardium.

Peripheral symptoms
Commonly include sinus tachycardia, hot dry skin, dry mouth and tongue, dilated pupils and urinary retention.

The most important ECG feature of toxicity is prolongation of the QRS interval, which indicates a high risk of ventricular tachycardia. In very severe poisoning the ECG may be bizarre. Rarely, prolongation of the PR interval or heart block may occur. QT interval prolongation and torsade de pointes has also been reported.

Central symptoms
Commonly include ataxia, nystagmus and drowsiness, which may lead to deep coma and respiratory depression. Increased tone and hyperreflexia may be present with extensor plantar reflexes. In deep coma all reflexes may be abolished. A divergent squint may be present.

Hypotension and hypothermia may occur. Fits occur in >5% of cases.

During recovery confusion, agitation and visual hallucinations may occur.

An ECG should be taken and in particular the QRS interval should be assessed since prolongation signifies an increased risk of arrhythmia and convulsions. Give activated charcoal by mouth or naso-gastric tube if more than 4 mg/kg has been ingested within one hour, provided the airway can be protected. A second dose of charcoal should be considered after two hours in patients with central features of toxicity who are able to swallow.

Tachyarrhythmias are best treated by correction of hypoxia and acidosis. Even in the absence of acidosis 50 millimoles of sodium bicarbonate should be given by intravenous infusion to adults with arrhythmias or clinically significant QRS prolongation on the ECG.

Control convulsions with intravenous diazepam or lorazepam. Give oxygen and correct acid base and metabolic disturbances. Phenytoin is contraindicated in tricyclic overdosage, because, like tricyclic antidepressants, it blocks sodium channels and may increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmias. Glucagon has been used to correct myocardial depression and hypotension.

Page last modified: 20 September 2005