Toxic alcohol ingestions: clinical features, diagnosis, and management

Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2008 Jan;3(1):208-25. doi: 10.2215/CJN.03220807. Epub 2007 Nov 28.


Alcohol-related intoxications, including methanol, ethylene glycol, diethylene glycol, and propylene glycol, and alcoholic ketoacidosis can present with a high anion gap metabolic acidosis and increased serum osmolal gap, whereas isopropanol intoxication presents with hyperosmolality alone. The effects of these substances, except for isopropanol and possibly alcoholic ketoacidosis, are due to their metabolites, which can cause metabolic acidosis and cellular dysfunction. Accumulation of the alcohols in the blood can cause an increment in the osmolality, and accumulation of their metabolites can cause an increase in the anion gap and a decrease in serum bicarbonate concentration. The presence of both laboratory abnormalities concurrently is an important diagnostic clue, although either can be absent, depending on the time after exposure when blood is sampled. In addition to metabolic acidosis, acute renal failure and neurologic disease can occur in some of the intoxications. Dialysis to remove the unmetabolized alcohol and possibly the organic acid anion can be helpful in treatment of several of the alcohol-related intoxications. Administration of fomepizole or ethanol to inhibit alcohol dehydrogenase, a critical enzyme in metabolism of the alcohols, is beneficial in treatment of ethylene glycol and methanol intoxication and possibly diethylene glycol and propylene glycol intoxication. Given the potentially high morbidity and mortality of these intoxications, it is important for the clinician to have a high degree of suspicion for these disorders in cases of high anion gap metabolic acidosis, acute renal failure, or unexplained neurologic disease so that treatment can be initiated early.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acidosis* / chemically induced
  • Acidosis* / diagnosis
  • Acidosis* / therapy
  • Alcoholic Intoxication* / diagnosis
  • Alcoholic Intoxication* / physiopathology
  • Alcoholic Intoxication* / therapy
  • Alcohols / pharmacokinetics
  • Alcohols / poisoning*
  • Glycols / pharmacokinetics
  • Glycols / poisoning*
  • Humans


  • Alcohols
  • Glycols