BACKGROUND: Peripheral intravenous catheter (PIV) insertion is a common, painful experience for many children in the pediatric emergency department. Although local anesthetics such as injected buffered lidocaine have been shown to be effective at reducing pain and anxiety associated with PIV insertion, they are not routinely used. ELA-Max, a topical local anesthetic, has the advantage of needle-free administration but has not been compared with buffered lidocaine for PIV insertion. OBJECTIVE: To compare the reduction of pain and anxiety during PIV insertion provided by subcutaneous buffered 1% lidocaine or topical ELA-Max in children. METHODS: A randomized trial in children 4 to 17 years old undergoing PIV insertion with 22-gauge catheters was conducted. Children received either buffered lidocaine or ELA-Max. Buffered lidocaine was administered by using 30-gauge needles to inject 0.1 to 0.2 mL subcutaneously just before PIV insertion. ELA-Max was applied to the skin and occluded with Tegaderm 30 minutes before PIV insertion. Self-reported Visual Analog Scale (VAS) questionnaires (rating on a scale of 1-10; 1 = no pain, anxiety) were completed by patients and their parents before PIV insertion to assess baseline perceptions about pain and anxiety associated with PIV insertion and immediately after PIV insertion to assess pain and anxiety associated with the experience. After PIV insertion, the nurse who inserted the PIV also completed a VAS questionnaire assessing technical difficulty and satisfaction with the local anesthesia. A blinded observer also completed a VAS questionnaire to assess pain and anxiety associated with the PIV insertion. Data were analyzed by using chi2 and t tests. RESULTS: Sixty-nine subjects were enrolled, and questionnaires were competed by all (mean age: 12.1 +/- 4.5 years; 61% female). There were no differences for buffered lidocaine and ELA-Max groups in age, gender, race, prior IV experience, or baseline pain and anxiety. There were no significant differences between buffered lidocaine and ELA-Max in mean pain and anxiety after PIV insertion by patient, parent, and blinded observer ratings. Nurse ratings of technical difficulty, number of PIV-insertion attempts, and satisfaction with local anesthesia also were not significantly different for buffered lidocaine and ELA-Max groups. CONCLUSIONS: ELA-Max provided similar pain and anxiety reduction during PIV insertion in children compared with injected buffered lidocaine. Technical difficulty and satisfaction by nurses inserting the PIV also were similar.