Some hemangiomas require systemic (internal) treatment to prevent complications caused by the hemangioma. Large hemangiomas on the eyelids, lip, nose, or airway need to be treated with systemic treatment. If there are sores (ulcers) in the hemangioma, systemic treatment can also help these heal faster. Hemangiomas that have a risk of permanent scarring should also be treated. Systemic treatments include propranolol and corticosteroids like prednisolone.
The use of propranolol for hemangiomas was first reported in 2008. Propranolol (Hemangeol) is the only FDA-approved medication for the treatment of infantile hemangiomas. It was approved in March 2014 after a large study showed that it was both effective and safe. Propranolol is a “beta-receptor blocker” that is also used to treat high blood pressure, irregular heart rate and migraine headaches.
We do not completely understand how propranolol makes hemangiomas shrink. Propranolol seems to slow the growth of hemangioma cells and shrink blood vessels so that the size of the hemangioma is reduced over time. Propranolol usually takes effect quickly. Most patients show some improvement in the first few days to weeks on the medication. Almost all patients (90-95%) improve with propranolol.
All patients should have a complete evaluation (including a medical history, family history and physical exam) with a medical provider before starting propranolol. Some children may need to have tests done to make sure that they can take propranolol safely. These tests may evaluate the heart, circulation or brain. Speak with your child’s provider about whether tests are needed.
Potential side effects of propranolol include: wheezing, sleep disruption, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, and rarely low blood sugar, slowing of the heart rate, low blood pressure, allergic reaction.
This is caused by narrowing of the airways and usually happens when the child has a respiratory viral illness. If your child is wheezing, contact your provider. Usually it is safest to stop the propranolol while your child is sick and restart it once your child is better.
Change in Sleep Pattern
Propranolol can affect some children’s sleep pattern. Children may have a hard time falling asleep, or may sleep more than normal. This is most noticeable when propranolol is first started. Night terrors (bad nightmares) are less common. Sometimes it can help to give the last dose of propranolol earlier in the day. If these changes do not get better with time, or are severe, report them to your doctor.
Gastrointestinal side effects
Diarrhea, vomiting (reflux) and constipation are all reported in patients taking propranolol. Usually these side effects are not severe and get better with time.
Slow Heart Rate (Bradycardia)
Propranolol can make the heart rate slower, but most of the time the heart rate in infants taking propranolol for hemangiomas is still in a normal and safe range.
Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)
Very rarely propranolol can contribute to low blood sugar. Low blood sugar can cause drowsiness or rarely seizures. Coldness, shakiness, and sweating are early signs of low blood sugar. Your child is more likely to have low blood sugar if she or he is not eating normal amounts or has gone for several hours without eating. You can prevent low blood sugar by giving propranolol during a feed or right after your child has eaten. If your child is sick and not eating normally, talk to your provider about stopping the propranolol until your child is eating normally again.
As with any medicine, people can be allergic to propranolol, though this is very rare. You should stop your child’s medicine and call your doctor if you think your child may have an allergic reaction. Signs of an allergic reaction may be hives, swelling of the face/hands/lips, and difficulty breathing or swallowing. This type of reaction typically appears within an hour of being given the medication.
Other Possible Side Effects
Propranolol can much more rarely cause other side effects. If your child has a new problem or change in behavior, contact your pediatrician or the doctor prescribing the propranolol to see if it might be related.
Other Medicines and Propranolol
Propranolol may interact with some other drugs (over the counter, herbal and prescription). Check all medicines that your child is taking with your child’s doctor or pharmacist.
How is propranolol taken?
Propranolol is available in a liquid that is taken by mouth. It is typically given 2 or 3 times per day. It is important to carefully measure the dose with a syringe to make sure the correct dose is given. Your provider will tell you how the doses should be spaced out throughout the day. To avoid confusion around whether or not the medication has been given, it may be better to have the same person give the propranolol.
What can I expect while my child is taking propranolol? How long is the treatment course?
Propranolol may begin to change the color and reduce the size of your child’s hemangioma within a few weeks. If the hemangioma is not responding, your doctor may increase the dose if it is still in a safe range. Most infants who need propranolol are on it for several months to a year. How long your child takes propranolol depends on the type of hemangioma, the complications the hemangioma is causing and the age of the child when treatment was started. If propranolol is stopped too soon, the hemangioma may begin to grow again and the medication may need to be restarted. Many infants will stay on the propranolol until they are 12 to 15 months of age. At this age there is less risk of the hemangioma growing back when the propranolol is stopped.
Oral Corticosteroids (Prednisolone)
Before oral propranolol (beta-receptor blocker) was used to treat hemangiomas, oral corticosteroids (prednisolone) were used to treat hemangiomas that needed treatment. Although steroids can slow the growth of infantile hemangiomas, they have side effects with long term use. These side effect can include: immune suppression, growth issues, and high blood pressure. Similar to propranolol, oral corticosteroids are given for several months and the dosage is gradually reduced toward the end of treatment.
Studies comparing propranolol and oral corticosteroids have shown that both treatments are effective in treating infantile hemangiomas. However, propranolol is more effective in reducing the size of infantile hemangiomas with fewer side effects.
Although propranolol is now considered first line treatment for complicated infantile hemangiomas, oral corticosteroids are still being used in certain situations. Oral corticosteroids may be used if propranolol cannot be used, for example if a child is allergic to propranolol or has a heart or lung condition that prevents the safe use of propranolol, or if your child cannot tolerate propranolol. Your provider may also consider treatment with oral corticosteroids if your child’s hemangioma is not responding to propranolol. A combination of both propranolol and oral corticosteroids may also be considered for severe, life threatening infantile hemangiomas.
Right preauricular: This two-month-old boy presented with a large hemangioma of the lateral cheek region. He was treated with oral propranolol, and at 1 year of age (second photo), marked improvement is noted.
Right hemifacial: This child’s hemangioma was treated with systemic prednisolone from 1 to 7 months of age.
Left Cheek (Segment 2): This child’s hemangioma was treated with systemic prednisolone from 5 weeks to 10 months of age.