The syndrome of alcoholic ketoacidosis

Am J Med. 1991 Aug;91(2):119-28. doi: 10.1016/0002-9343(91)90003-g.


Purpose: To further elucidate the clinical spectrum of alcoholic ketoacidosis (AKA).

Patients and methods: A case series of 74 patients with AKA defined as a wide anion gap metabolic acidosis unexplained by any other disorder or toxin, including any patient with a history of chronic alcohol abuse. The setting was the Medical Emergency Department at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, a university-affiliated inner-city hospital.

Results: AKA is a common disorder in the emergency department, more common than previously thought. The acid-base abnormalities are more diverse than just a wide-gap metabolic acidosis and often include a concomitant metabolic alkalosis, hyperchloremic acidosis, or respiratory alkalosis. Lactic acidosis is also common. Semiquantitative serum acetoacetate levels were positive in 96% of patients. Elevated blood alcohol levels were present in two thirds of patients in whom alcohol levels were determined, and levels consistent with intoxication were seen in 40% of these patients. Electrolyte disorders including hyponatremia, hypokalemia, hypophosphatemia, hyperglycemia, hypocalcemia, and hypomagnesemia were common on presentation. The most common symptoms were nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The most common physical findings were tachycardia, tachypnea, and abdominal tenderness. Altered mental status, fever, hypothermia, or other abnormal findings were uncommon and reflected other underlying processes.

Conclusions: AKA is a common disorder in chronic malnourished alcoholic persons. The acid-base abnormalities reflect not only the ketoacidosis, but also associated extracellular fluid volume depletion, alcohol withdrawal, pain, sepsis, or severe liver disease. Although the pathophysiology is complex, the syndrome is rapidly reversible and has a low mortality.

MeSH terms

  • Acid-Base Imbalance / blood*
  • Acidosis / epidemiology
  • Acidosis / etiology*
  • Acidosis / metabolism
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcoholism / blood
  • Alcoholism / complications*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydroxybutyrates / blood
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Disorders / etiology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Syndrome


  • Hydroxybutyrates