Low sensitivity of the anion gap as a screen to detect hyperlactatemia in critically ill patients

Crit Care Med. 1990 Mar;18(3):275-7. doi: 10.1097/00003246-199003000-00005.


The anion gap is commonly used as a screening test for the presence of lactic acidosis. Analysis of the distribution of anion gaps for 56 adult surgical ICU patients with peak blood lactate levels greater than or equal to 2.5 mmol/L showed the anion gap to be an insensitive screen for elevated lactate in a critically ill, hospitalized population. All patients (11/11) with a peak lactate greater than or equal to 10 mmol/L had an anion gap greater than or equal to 16 mmol/L; however, 50% (6/12) of patients with lactates between 5.0 and 9.9 mmol/L and 79% (26/33) of those with lactates between 2.5 and 4.9 mmol/L had anion gaps less than 16 mmol/L. Hyperlactatemia was associated with considerable mortality at all levels: 100% among patients with lactate levels greater than or equal to 10 mmol/L, 75% between 5.0 and 9.9 mmol/L, and 36.4% between 2.5 and 4.9 mmol/L. Acidosis (pH less than 7.30) did not significantly alter mortality by lactate level. The observation that, for 57% of patients in this study, an elevated lactate level was not accompanied by an elevated anion gap suggests that hyperlactatemia should be included in the differential diagnosis of nonanion gap acidosis.

MeSH terms

  • Acid-Base Equilibrium*
  • Acidosis, Lactic / blood
  • Aged
  • False Negative Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lactates / blood*
  • Male
  • Postoperative Period
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative* / mortality


  • Lactates