Obesity and Pharmacokinetics

Reviewed and revised 6 March 2015


  • obesity affects all four aspects of pharmacokinetics
  • As drug administration based on total body weight can result in in underdosing or overdosing, depending on the characteristics of the drug, weight-based dosing scalars must be considered
  • Lean body weight is the optimal scalar for most IV opioids and anaesthetics
  • The pharmacodynamic profile of drugs may also be affected, e.g. the risk of respiratory depression and loss of airway patency is greater with sedatives and narcotics
  • careful therapeutic drug monitoring is important in obese patients
  • morbidly obese people are often excluded from clinical trials during the drug development process so data is limited on the correct dosing of many drugs, and clinical judgement, combined with interpretation of drug pharmacokinetics, is often required

Total Body Weight (TBW) is the patient’s actual weight.

Ideal Body Weight (IBW):

  • Males = height – 100
  • Females = height – 110

Lean Body Weight (LBW):

  • Males = 50 + 0.9kg for every cm over 150cm
  • Females = 45 + 0.9kg for every cm over 150cm


  • increased absorption of oral medications (increased gastric emptying)
  • difficult IV access in the obese
  • decreased SC absorption due to poor subcutaneous blood supply
  • IM administration may fail if needles are too short


  • markedly affected by ratio of adipose tissue to lean body mass if lipid soluble
  • increased Vd of lipid soluble drugs
    -> dose lipid soluble drugs on actual body weight
    (remifentanil is an exception, although lipophilic Vd does not change – use IBW or LBW)
  • no change in Vd of H2O soluble drugs (but blood, ECF, body organ and connective tissue volume are also increased)
    -> dose on ideal or lean body weight
  • accumulation of lipophilic drugs in fat stores
  • may increase dose required to gain effect
  • total body water may be increased by resuscitation volume
  • Cmax reduced
  • altered protein binding


  • variable effects
  • increases in cytochrome P450 2E1 activity and phase II conjugation activity
  • more likely to be affected by critical illness with drug interactions
  • reduced hepatic blood flow


  • T1/2 increased of lipid soluble drugs due to accumulation
  • obese patients with normal renal function have increased GFRs
    -> increased clearance of drugs excreted by the kidneys
  • co-existing disease will effect this (e.g. nephropathy associated with diabetes and hypertension)
  • calculated and measured creatinine clearance correlate poorly in obesity and in critical illness


Dosing of common anaesthetic drugs in the obese

Obesity and Pharmacokinetics

References and Links


Journal articles and textbooks

  • De Baerdemaeker LEC, Mortier EP, Struys MMRF. Pharmacokinetics in obese patients  Contin Educ Anaesth Crit Care Pain 2004; 4 (5): 152-155. [Free Full Text]
  • Erstad BL. Dosing of medications in morbidly obese patients in the intensive care unit setting. Intensive Care Med. 2004 Jan;30(1):18-32. PMID: 14625670.
  • Green B, Duffull SB. What is the best size descriptor to use for pharmacokinetic studies in the obese? Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2004 Aug;58(2):119-33. PMC1884581.
  • Hanley MJ, Abernethy DR, Greenblatt DJ. Effect of obesity on the pharmacokinetics of drugs in humans. Clin Pharmacokinet. 2010;49(2):71-87. PMID: 20067334.
  • Ingrande J, Lemmens HJM. Dose adjustment of anaesthetics in the morbidly obese. BJA. 2010; 105 (suppl 1): i16-i23. [Free Full Text]
  • Leykin Y, Miotto L, Pellis T. Pharmacokinetic considerations in the obese. Best Pract Res Clin Anaesthesiol. 2011 Mar;25(1):27-36. PMID: 21516911.
  • Medico CJ, Walsh P. Pharmacotherapy in the critically ill obese patient. Crit Care Clin. 2010 Oct;26(4):679-88. PMID: 20970057.

CCC 700 6

Critical Care


Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

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