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Metabolic Acidosis

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Metabolic acidosis is a pH imbalance in which the body has accumulated too much acid and does not have enough bicarbonate to effectively neutralize the effects of the acid.


Metabolic acidosis, as a disruption of the body's acid/base balance, can be a mild symptom brought on by a lack of insulin, a starvation diet, or a gastrointestinal disorder like vomiting and diarrhea. Metabolic acidosis can indicate a more serious problem with a major organ like the liver, heart, or kidneys. It can also be one of the first signs of drug overdose or poisoning.

Causes and symptoms

Metabolic acidosis occurs when the body has more acid than base in it. Chemists use the term "pH" to describe how acidic or basic a substance is. Based on a scale of 14, a pH of 7.0 is neutral. A pH below 7.0 is an acid; the lower the number, the stronger the acid. A pH above 7.0 is a base; the higher the number, the stronger the base. Blood pH is slightly basic (alkaline), with a normal range of 7.36-7.44.

Acid is a natural by-product of the breakdown of fats and other processes in the body; however, in some conditions, the body does not have enough bicarbonate, an acid neutralizer, to balance the acids produced. This can occur when the body uses fats for energy instead of carbohydrates. Conditions where metabolic acidosis can occur include chronic alcoholism, malnutrition, and diabetic ketoacidosis. Consuming a diet low in carbohydrates and high in fats can also produce metabolic acidosis. The disorder may also be a symptom of another condition like kidney failure, liver failure, or severe diarrhea. The build-up of lactic acid in the blood due to such conditions as heart failure, shock, or cancer, induces metabolic acidosis. Some poisonings and overdoses (aspirin, methanol, or ethylene glycol) also produce symptoms of metabolic acidosis.

In mild cases of metabolic acidosis, symptoms include headache, lack of energy, and sleepiness. Breathing may become fast and shallow. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and loss of appetite are also associated with metabolic acidosis. Diabetic patients with symptoms of metabolic acidosis may also have breath that smells fruity. The patient may lose consciousness or become disoriented. Severe cases can produce coma and death.


Metabolic acidosis is suspected based on symptoms, but is usually confirmed by laboratory tests on blood and urine samples. Blood pH below 7.35 confirms the condition. Levels of other blood components, including potassium, glucose, ketones, or lactic acid, may also be above normal ranges. The level of bicarbonate in the blood will be low, usually less than 22 mEq/L. Urine pH may fall below 4.5 in metabolic acidosis.


Treatment focuses first on correcting the acid imbalance. Usually, sodium bicarbonate and fluids will be injected into the blood through a vein. An intravenous line may be started to administer fluids and allow for the quick injection of other drugs that may be needed. If the patient is diabetic, insulin may be administered. Drugs to regulate blood pressure or heart rate, to prevent seizures, or to control nausea and vomiting might be given. Vital signs like pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and body temperature will be monitored. The underlying cause of the metabolic acidosis must also be diagnosed and corrected.


If the metabolic acidosis is recognized and treated promptly, the patient may have no long-term complications, however, the underlying condition that caused the acidosis needs to be corrected or managed. Severe metabolic acidosis that is left untreated will lead to coma and death.


Diabetic patients need to routinely test their urine for sugar and acetone, strictly follow their appropriate diet, and take any medications or insulin to prevent metabolic acidosis. Patients receiving tube feedings or intravenous feedings must be monitored to prevent dehydration or the accumulation of ketones or lactic acid.



Bennett, J. Claude, and Fred Plum, eds. "Acid-Base Disturbances." In Cecil Textbook of Medicine. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co., 1996.

DuBose Jr., Thomas D. "Acidosis and Alkalosis." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

"Fluid, Electrolyte, and Acid-Base Disorders." In Family Medicine Principles and Practices. 5th ed. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1998.

"Fluid & Electrolyte Disorders." In Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 1998. 37th ed. Ed. Stephen McPhee, et al. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1997.

Altha Roberts Edgren


Diabetic ketoacidosis—A condition caused by low insulin levels where the amount of sugar and ketones in the blood is high.

pH—A measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution based on the amount of hydrogen ions available. Based on a scale of 14, a pH of 7.0 is neutral. A pH below 7.0 is an acid; the lower the number, the stronger the acid. A pH above 7.0 is a base; the higher the number, the stronger the base. Blood pH is slightly alkaline (basic) with a normal range of 7.36-7.44.

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