Phenytoin - Related Links


Structural formula of phenytoin
Space-filling model of the phenytoin molecule
Systematic (IUPAC) name
Clinical data
Trade names Dilantin
AHFS/ monograph
MedlinePlus a682022
  • AU: D
  • US: D (Evidence of risk)
Oral, parenteral
Pharmacokinetic data
Bioavailability 70-100% oral, 24.4% for rectal and intravenous administration
Protein binding 90%
Metabolism hepatic
Half-life 6–24 hours
Excretion Primarily through the bile, urinary
57-41-0 7pxY
PubChem CID 1775
DrugBank DB00252 7pxY
ChemSpider 1710 7pxY
UNII 6158TKW0C5 7pxY
KEGG D00512 7pxY
ChEBI CHEBI:8107 7pxN
Chemical data
Formula C15H12N2O2
252.268 g/mol
 14pxN (what is this?)  (verify)

Phenytoin /fəˈnɪtɨn/ is a hydantoin-derivative anticonvulsant drug used primarily in the management of complex partial seizures and generalized tonic-clonic seizures. Phenytoin is also used to prevent seizures following neurosurgery. Phenytoin is believed to protect against seizures by causing voltage-dependent block of voltage gated sodium channels.[1] Additionally, phenytoin is a class 1b antiarrhythmic that can be used to treat abnormal heart rhythms when conventional options have failed or after cardiac glycoside poisoning.[2]

It is on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, a list of the most important medication needed in a basic health system.[3]

Medical uses

Information in this section adapted from Lexi-Comp [4]


  • Tonic-clonic seizures - Mainly used in the prophylactic management of tonic-clonic seizures with complex symptomatology (psychomotor seizures). A period of 5–10 days may be required to achieve anticonvulsant effects.
  • Focal seizures - Mainly used to protect against the development of focal seizures with complex symptomatology (psychomotor and temporal lobe seizures). Also effective in controlling partial seizures with autonomic symptoms.
  • Absence seizures - Not used in treatment of pure absence seizures due to risk for increasing frequency of seizures. However, can be used in combination with other anticonvulsants during combined absence and tonic-clonic seizures.
  • Seizures during surgery - Used as prevention and treatment of seizures occurring during and after neurosurgery.
  • Status epilepticus - Considered after failed treatment using a benzodiazepine due to slow onset of action.


Special considerations

  • Monitoring plasma concentrations: Narrow therapeutic index. Anticonvulsant effect: 10–20 µg/mL; Antiarrhythmic effect: 10–20 µg/mL
  • Avoid giving intramuscular formulation unless necessary due to skin cell death and local tissue destruction.
  • Elderly- May show earlier signs of toxicity.
  • Obese- Use ideal body weight for dosing calculations.
  • Pregnancy- Pregnancy Category D due to risk of fetal hydantoin syndrome and fetal bleeding. However, optimal seizure control is very important during pregnancy so drug may be continued if benefits outweigh the risks. Due to decreased drug concentrations during pregnancy, dose of phenytoin may need to be increased if only option for seizure control.
  • Breast feeding- The manufacturer does not recommend breast feeding because low concentrations of phenytoin are excreted in breast milk.[11]
  • Liver disease- Do not use oral loading dose. Consider using decreased maintenance dose.
  • Kidney disease- Do not use oral loading dose. Can begin with standard maintenance dose and adjust as needed.
  • IV use is contraindicated in patients with sinus bradycardia, SA block, second- or third-degree AV block, Adams-Stokes syndrome, or have known hypersensitivity to phenytoin or any ingredient in the respective formulation or to other hydantoins.


Heart and blood vessels

Severe low blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms can be seen with rapid infusion of IV phenytoin. IV infusion should not exceed 50 mg/min in adults or 1–3 mg/kg/min (or 50 mg/min, whichever is slower) in children. Heart monitoring should occur during and after IV infusion. Due to these risks, oral phenytoin should be used if possible.[12]


At therapeutic doses, phenytoin may produce nystagmus on lateral gaze. At toxic doses, patients experience vertical nystagmus, double vision, sedation, slurred speech, cerebellar ataxia, and tremor.[13] If phenytoin is stopped abruptly, this may result in increased seizure frequency, including status epilepticus.[12]

Phenytoin may accumulate in the cerebral cortex over long periods of time which can cause atrophy of the cerebellum. The degree of atrophy is related to the duration of phenytoin treatment and is not related to dosage of the medication.[14]

Abrupt discontinuation of phenytoin can precipitate status epilepticus.[11]


It has been suggested that phenytoin causes a reduction in folic acid levels, predisposing patients to megaloblastic anemia. Folate is presented in foods as polyglutamate, which is then converted into monoglutamates by intestinal conjugase. Phenytoin acts by inhibiting this enzyme, thereby causing folate deficiency.[15] Other side effects may include: agranulocytosis, aplastic anemia, decreased white blood cell count,[citation needed] and a low platelet count.[16]


Phenytoin is a known teratogen. The syndrome consists of craniofacial anomalies (broad nasal bridge, cleft lip and palate, smaller than normal head) and a mild form of mental retardation (average IQ=71).[17] This syndrome resembles the well-described Fetal Alcohol Syndrome[18] and has also been called the "fetal hydantoin syndrome". Some recommend avoiding polytherapy and maintaining the minimal dose possible during pregnancy, but acknowledge that current data do not provide clear answers.[19] Data now being collected by the Epilepsy and Antiepileptic Drug Pregnancy Registry may one day answer this question definitively.


There is no good evidence that phenytoin is a human carcinogen.[20][21]


Phenytoin has been associated with drug-induced gingival enlargement (overgrowth of the gums), probably due to above-mentioned folate deficiency; indeed, evidence from a randomized controlled trial suggests that folic acid supplementation can prevent gingival enlargement in children who take phenytoin.[22] Plasma concentrations needed to induce gingival lesions have not been clearly defined. Effects consist of the following: bleeding upon probing, increased gingival exudate, pronounced gingival inflammatory response to plaque levels, associated in some instances with bone loss but without tooth detachment.


Hypertrichosis, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, purple glove syndrome, rash, exfoliative dermatitis, itching, excessive hairiness, and coarsening of facial features can be seen in those taking phentyoin.

Phenytoin therapy has been linked to the life-threatening skin reactions Stevens–Johnson syndrome (SJS) and toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN). These conditions are significantly more common in patients with a particular HLA-B allele, HLA-B*1502.[23] This allele occurs almost exclusively in patients with ancestry across broad areas of Asia, including South Asian Indians.

Phenytoin is primarily metabolized to its inactive form by the enzyme CYP2C9. Variations within the CYP2C9 gene that result in decreased enzymatic activity have been associated with increased phenytoin concentrations, as well as reports of drug toxicities due to these increased concentrations.[24] The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes on the phenytoin drug label that since strong evidence exists linking HLA-B*1502 with the risk of developing SJS or TEN in patients taking carbamazepine, consideration should be given to avoiding phenytoin as an alternative to carbamazepine in patients carrying this allele.[25]

Immune system

Phenytoin has been known to cause drug-induced lupus.[26]

Phenytoin is also associated with induction of reversible IgA deficiency.[23]


Phenytoin may increase risk of suicidal thoughts or behavior. People on phenytoin should be monitored for any changes in mood, the development or worsening depression, and/or any thoughts or behavior of suicide.[11]


Chronic phenytoin use has been associated with decreased bone density and increased bone fractures. Phenytoin induces metabolizing enzymes in the liver. This leads to increased metabolism of vitamin D, thus decreased vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency, as well as low calcium and phospate in the blood cause decreased bone mineral density.[11]


Phenytoin is an inducer of the CYP3A4 and CYP2C19 families of the P450 enzyme responsible for the liver's degradation of various drugs.[27]

A 1981 study by the National Institutes of Health showed that antacids administered concomitantly with phenytoin "altered not only the extent of absorption but also appeared to alter the rate of absorption. Antacids administered in a peptic ulcer regimen may decrease the AUC of a single dose of phenytoin. Patients should be cautioned against concomitant use of antacids and phenytoin."[28]

Warfarin (Coumadin) and trimethoprim increase serum phenytoin levels and prolong the serum half-life of phenytoin by inhibiting its metabolism. Consider using other options if possible.[29]

Mechanism of action

Phenytoin produces its anticonvulsant activity through blocking sustained high frequency repetitive firing of action potentials. This is accomplished by reducing the amplitude of sodium-dependent action potentials through enhancing steady state inactivation. Sodium channels exist in three main conformations: the resting state, the open state, and the inactive state.

File:Phenytoin sodium mechanism of action.png
The mechanism of action of phenytoin sodium. Sodium channels are: 1) Closed 2) Open 3) Inactive (phenytoin effect)

Phenytoin binds preferentially to the inactive form of the sodium channel. Because it takes time for the bound drug to dissociate from the inactive channel, there is a time dependent block of the channel. Since the fraction of inactive channels is increased by membrane depolarization as well as by repetitive firing, the binding to the inactive state by phenytoin sodium can produce voltage-dependent, use-dependent and time-dependent block of sodium-dependent action potentials.[30]

The primary site of action appears to be the motor cortex where spread of seizure activity is inhibited.[citation needed] Possibly by promoting sodium efflux from neurons, phenytoin tends to stabilize the threshold against hyperexcitability caused by excessive stimulation or environmental changes capable of reducing membrane sodium gradient. This includes the reduction of post-tetanic potentiation at synapses which prevents cortical seizure foci from detonating adjacent cortical areas. Phenytoin reduces the maximal activity of brain stem centers responsible for the tonic phase of generalized tonic-clonic seizures.[12]


Phenytoin elimination kinetics show mixed-order behaviour at therapeutic concentrations. A small increase in dose may lead to a large increase in drug concentration as elimination becomes saturated. The time to reach steady state is often longer than 2 weeks.[31][32][33][34]


Phenytoin (diphenylhydantoin) was first synthesized by German chemist Heinrich Biltz in 1908.[35] Biltz sold his discovery to Parke-Davis, which did not find an immediate use for it. In 1938, outside scientists including H. Houston Merritt and Tracy Putnam discovered phenytoin's usefulness for controlling seizures, without the sedative effects associated with phenobarbital.

According to Goodman and Gilman's Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics,

In contrast to the earlier accidental discovery of the antiseizure properties of bromide and phenobarbital, phenytoin was the product of a search among nonsedative structural relatives of phenobarbital for agents capable of suppressing electroshock convulsions in laboratory animals.[36]

It was approved by the USA Food and Drug Administration in 1953 for use in seizures.

Jack Dreyfus, founder of the Dreyfus Fund, became a major proponent of phenytoin as a means to control nervousness and depression when he received a prescription for Dilantin in 1966. He is believed to have supplied large amounts of the drug to Richard Nixon throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dreyfus' experience with phenytoin is outlined in his book, A Remarkable Medicine Has Been Overlooked.[37] Despite more than $70 million in personal financing, his push to see phenytoin evaluated for alternative uses has had little lasting effect on the medical community. This was partially because Parke-Davis was reluctant to invest in a drug nearing the end of its patent life, and partially due to mixed results from various studies.

In 2008, the drug was put on the FDA's Potential Signals of Serious Risks List to be further evaluated for approval. The list identifies medications that the FDA has identified a potential safety issue, but does not mean that FDA has identified a causal relationship between the drug and the listed risk. To address this concern, the Warnings and Precautions section of the labeling for Dilantin injection was updated to include additional information about purple glove syndrome in November 2011.[38]

Society and culture

Trade names

Phenytoin sodium has been marketed as Phenytek by Mylan Laboratories, previously Bertek Pharmaceuticals, and Dilantin; Australia also Dilantin Kapseals and Dilantin Infatabs in the USA, Eptoin by Abbott Group in India and as Epanutin in the UK and Israel, by Parke-Davis and, after it bought Parke-Davis, by Pfizer.

Since September 2012, the marketing licence in the UK has been held by Flynn Pharma Ltd, of Dublin, Ireland, and the product, although identical, has been called Phenytoin Sodium xxmg Flynn Hard Capsules. (The xxmg in the name refers to the strength - for example 'Phenytoin sodium 25 mg Flynn Hard Capsules').[39] The capsules are still made by Pfizer's Goedecke subsidiary's plant in Freiburg, Germany and they still have Epanutin printed on them.[40] After Pfizer's sale of the UK marketing licence to Flynn Pharma, the price of a 28-pack of 25 mg phenytoin sodium capsules marked Epanutin rose from 66p (about $0.88) to £15.74 (about $25.06). Capsules of other strengths also went up in price by the same factor - 238.4%[41] costing the UK's National Health Service an extra £43 million (about $68.44 million) a year.[42]

In the USSR and post-Soviet countries, it was/is marketed as Дифенин (Diphenin, Dipheninum). In India, brands available include FENTOIN-ER and EPSOLIN[43] Diphantoine is a brand available in The Netherlands (91% Phenytoin).

Popular culture

Dilantin made an appearance in the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, both as an anticonvulsant and as a mechanism to control inmate behavior.

In the 2013 science fiction film Elysium, the protagonist (played by Matt Damon) takes Miporol, a fictional brand name for diphenylhydantoin, after having been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation.


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