The low HCO3 in metabolic acidosis results from the addition of acids (organic or inorganic) or from a loss of HCO3; causes of metabolic acidosis are classically categorized by presence or absence of an increase in the anion gap (Table 2-1). Increased anion-gap acidosis (>12 mmol/L) is due to addition of acid (other than HCl) and unmeasured anions to the body. Common causes include ketoacidosis (diabetes mellitus [DKA], starvation, alcohol), lactic acidosis, poisoning (salicylates, ethylene glycol, and methanol), and renal failure.

TABLE 2-1: Metabolic Acidosis

Diarrhea enterostomy






 Distal—hyporeninemic hypoaldosteronism




Acetazolamide, NH4Cl, lysine HCl, arginine HCl, sevelamer-HCl

Hx; ↑ K+ drainage

Early chronic kidney disease

↓ K+, presence of other proximal tubular defects (Fanconi syndrome)

↓ K+; hypercalciuria; UpH >5.5

↑ K+; nl PRA/aldo; UpH >5.5

↑ K+; ↓ PRA/aldo; UpH <5.5

Massive volume expansion with saline

Obstructed ileal loop

Amino acid infusion

Hx of administration of these agents



Lactic acidosis


Alcoholic ketoacidosis




Ethylene glycol

D-lactic acidosis

Propylene glycol

Pyroglutamic aciduria, 5-oxoprolinuria

Hyperglycemia, ketones

Late chronic kidney disease

Clinical setting + ↑ serum lactate

Hx; weak + ketones; + osm gap

Hx; mild acidosis; + ketones

Hx; tinnitus; high serum level; + ketones; + lactate

Large AG; concomitant respiratory alkalosis; retinitis; + toxic screen; + osm gap

RF; CNS symptoms; + toxic screen; crystalluria; + osm gap

Small-bowel disease; prominent neuro symptoms

IV infusions, e.g., lorazepam; + osm gap; RF

Large AG; chronic acetaminophen

Abbreviations: AG, anion gap; DKA, diabetic ketoacidosis; osm gap, osmolar gap; PRA, plasma renin activity; RF, renal failure; RTA, renal tubular acidosis; UpH, urinary pH.

Rare and newly appreciated causes of anion-gap acidosis include D-lactic acidosis, propylene glycol toxicity, and 5-oxoprolinuria (also known as pyroglutamic aciduria). D-Lactic acidosis (an increase in the D-enantiomer of lactate) can occur in pts with removal, disease, or bypass of the short bowel, leading to increased delivery of carbohydrates to colon. Intestinal overgrowth of organisms that metabolize carbohydrate to D-lactate results in D-lactic acidosis; a wide variety of neurologic symptoms can ensue, with resolution following treatment with appropriate antibiotics to change the intestinal flora. Propylene glycol is a common solvent for IV preparations of a number of drugs, most prominently lorazepam. Pts receiving high rates of these drugs may develop a hyperosmolar anion-gap metabolic acidosis, due mostly to increased lactate, often accompanied by acute kidney failure. Pyroglutamic aciduria (5-oxoprolinuria) is a high anion-gap acidosis caused by dysfunction of the γ-glutamyl cycle that replenishes intracellular glutathione; 5-oxoproline is an intermediate product of the cycle. Hereditary defects in the γ-glutamyl cycle are associated with 5-oxoprolinuria; acquired defects occur in the context of acetaminophen therapy, due to derepression of the cycle by reduced glutathione and overproduction of 5-oxoproline. Resolution occurs after withdrawal of acetaminophen; treatment with N-acetyl cysteine to replenish glutathione stores may hasten recovery.

The differentiation of the various anion-gap acidoses depends on the clinical scenario and routine laboratory tests (Table 2-1) in conjunction with measurement of serum lactate, ketones, toxicology screens (if ethylene glycol or methanol ingestion are suspected), and serum osmolality. D-Lactic acidosis can be diagnosed by a specific assay for the D-enantiomer; 5-oxoprolinuria can be diagnosed by the clinical scenario and confirmed by gas chromatographic/mass spectroscopic (GC/MS) analysis of urine, a widely available pediatric screening test for inborn errors of metabolism (typically “urine for organic acids”).

Pts with ethylene glycol, methanol, or propylene glycol toxicity may have an “osmolar gap,” defined as a >10-mosmol/kg difference between calculated and measured serum osmolality. Calculated osmolality = 2 × Na+ + glucose/18 + BUN/2.8. Of note, pts with alcoholic ketoacidosis and lactic acidosis may also exhibit a modest elevation in the osmolar gap; pts may alternatively metabolize ethylene glycol or methanol to completion by presentation, with an increased anion gap and no increase in the osmolar gap. However, the rapid availability of a measured serum osmolality may aid in the urgent assessment and management of pts with these medical emergencies.

Normal anion-gap acidosis can result from HCO3 loss from the GI tract. Diarrhea is by far the most common cause, but other GI conditions associated with external losses of bicarbonate-rich fluids may lead to large alkali losses—e.g., in ileus secondary to intestinal obstruction, in which liters of alkaline fluid may accumulate within the intestinal lumen. Various forms of kidney disease are associated with non-anion-gap acidosis due to reduced tubular reabsorption of filtered bicarbonate and/or reduced excretion of ammonium (NH4+). The early stages of progressive renal disease are frequently associated with a non-anion-gap acidosis, with development of an anion-gap component in more advanced renal failure. Non-anion-gap acidosis is also seen in renal tubular acidosis or in the context of tubulointerstitial injury, e.g., after acute tubular necrosis, allergic interstitial nephritis, or urinary tract obstruction. Finally, non-anion-gap acidosis due to exogenous acid loads may occur after rapid volume expansion with saline-containing solutions, the administration of NH4Cl (a component of cough syrup), lysine HCl, or treatment with the phosphate binder sevelamer hydrochloride.

Calculation of the urinary anion gap may be helpful in the evaluation of hyperchloremic metabolic acidosis, along with a measurement of urine pH. The urinary anion gap is defined as urinary ([Na+] + [K+]) – [Cl] = [unmeasured anions] – [unmeasured cations]); the NH4+ ion is the major unmeasured urinary cation in metabolic acidosis, wherein the urinary anion gap should be strongly negative. A negative anion gap thus suggests GI losses of bicarbonate, with appropriate renal response and increased NH4+ excretion; a positive anion gap suggests altered urinary acidification, as seen in renal failure or distal renal tubular acidoses. An important caveat is that the rapid renal excretion of unmeasured anions in anion-gap acidosis, classically seen in DKA, may reduce the serum anion gap and generate a positive value for the urinary anion gap, despite the adequate excretion of urinary NH4+; this may lead to misdiagnosis as a renal tubular acidosis.

Treatment: Metabolic Acidosis

Treatment of metabolic acidosis depends on the cause and severity. DKA responds to insulin therapy and aggressive hydration; close attention to serum [K+] and administration of KCl is essential, given that the correction of insulinopenia can cause profound hypokalemia. The administration of alkali in anion-gap acidoses is controversial and is rarely appropriate in DKA. It is reasonable to treat severe lactic acidosis with IV HCO3 at a rate sufficient to maintain a pH >7.20; treatment of moderate lactic acidosis with HCO3 is controversial. IV HCO3 is however appropriate to reduce acidosis in D-lactic acidosis, ethylene glycol and methanol toxicity, and 5-oxoprolinuria.

Chronic metabolic acidosis should be treated when HCO3 is <18–20 mmol/L. In pts with CKD, there is some evidence that acidosis promotes protein catabolism and may worsen bone disease. There is also evidence that correction of metabolic acidosis in CKD leads to a reduced rate of progression to end-stage renal disease (ESRD). Sodium citrate may be more palatable than oral NaHCO3. Oral therapy with NaHCO3 usually begins with 650 mg tid and is titrated upward to maintain serum [HCO3].