Methemoglobin is a form of hemoglobin that does not bind oxygen. When its concentration is elevated in red blood cells, functional anemia and tissue hypoxia may occur. We performed a retrospective case series to describe the cases of acquired methemoglobinemia (methemoglobin level >2%) detected and the clinical circumstances under which they occurred at 2 tertiary care hospitals and affiliated outpatient clinics over 28 months. We surveyed co-oximetry laboratory data to identify patients with methemoglobinemia. We reviewed these patients' medical records to extract the clinical information and context. One hundred thirty-eight cases of acquired methemoglobinemia were detected over the 28 months. There was no gender predisposition, and the condition occurred over a wide range of ages (patients aged 4 days to 86 years). Cases occurred in many areas of the hospital, including outpatient clinics. One fatality and 3 near-fatalities were directly attributable to methemoglobinemia. Dapsone was the most common etiology of acquired methemoglobinemia, accounting for 42% of all cases. The mean peak methemoglobin level among these individuals was 7.6%. In 5 of the patients with the most severely elevated levels, 20% benzocaine spray (Hurricaine Topical Anesthetic spray, Beutlich Pharmaceuticals, Waukegan, IL) was the etiology, associated with a mean peak methemoglobin level of 43.8%. Eleven pediatric patients developed methemoglobinemia either from exogenous exposure, such as drugs, or due to serious illness, such as gastrointestinal infections with dehydration. Almost all (94%) patients with methemoglobinemia were anemic. Drugs that cause acquired methemoglobinemia are ubiquitous in both the hospital and the outpatient setting. Acquired methemoglobinemia is a treatable condition that causes significant morbidity and even mortality. We hope that a heightened awareness of methemoglobinemia will result in improved recognition and treatment. Primary prevention efforts have the potential to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with this condition.
Copyright 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins