Acid-base Balance

Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Disorders of acid-base balance can lead to severe complications in many disease states.[1]Arterial blood pH is normally closely regulated to between 7.35 and 7.45. Maintaining the pH within these limits is achieved by bicarbonate, other buffers, the lungs and the kidneys. Primary changes in bicarbonate are metabolic and primary changes in carbon dioxide are respiratory.

  • In the absence of any significant respiratory disease or hyperventilation, the primary cause is much more likely to be metabolic. However, central hypoventilation (eg, caused by CNS disturbance such as stroke, head injury or brain tumour) causes respiratory acidosis.
  • In general, the kidneys compensate for respiratory causes and the lungs compensate for metabolic causes. Therefore, hyperventilation may be a cause of respiratory alkalosis or a compensatory mechanism for metabolic acidosis. Deep sighing respiration (Kussmaul breathing) is a common feature of acidosis (hyperventilation in an attempt to remove carbon dioxide) but may take some hours to appear.

Analysis of arterial blood gases provides:

  • pH: determines whether there is an overall acidosis or alkalosis. Venous pH is in practice as reliable as arterial pH.
  • Carbon dioxide partial pressure (PaCO2): if raised with acidosis then the acidosis is respiratory. If decreased with alkalosis then the alkalosis is respiratory. Otherwise any change is compensatory.
  • Standard bicarbonate (SBCe): analysis of blood gases provides a bicarbonate level which is calculated from the PaCO2 using the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation.
  • Bicarbonate (HCO3): increased with metabolic alkalosis and decreased in metabolic acidosis. Otherwise the change is compensatory (ie normal or raised in respiratory acidosis; normal or decreased in respiratory alkalosis).
  • Check pH: if below 7.35 then is an acidosis; if above 7.45 then is an alkalosis
  • Check PaCO2: if it has moved in the same direction as pH then the primary cause is metabolic; if it has moved in the opposite direction the primary cause is respiratory.
  • If there is a respiratory cause, then changes in pH and HCO3 should be as follows:
    • If acute acidosis: pH falls by 0.08 and HCO3 rises by 1 mmol/L for each 10 mm Hg PaCO2 above 40 mm Hg.
    • If chronic acidosis: pH falls by 0.03 and HCO3 rises by 2-4 mmol/L for each 10 mm Hg of PaCO2 above 40 mm Hg.
    • For respiratory alkalosis, the opposite directions are present for all changes.
  • If there is a metabolic acidosis then calculate the expected PaCO2 and compare to measured value to see if there is also a respiratory component. Expected PaCO2 = (1.5 x [HCO3] + 8) +/- 2. A lower than expected PaCO2 indicates a superimposed respiratory alkalosis and a higher than expected PaCO2 indicates a respiratory acidosis.
  • If metabolic alkalosis: calculate the expected PaCO2 and compare to measured value to see if there is also a respiratory component. Expected PaCO2 = (0.9 x [HCO3] + 9) +/- 2.
  • Also work out anion gap (see below).

In plasma, the sum of the cations (sodium plus potassium) is normally greater than that of the anions (chloride plus bicarbonate) by approximately 14 mmol/L. This is known as the anion gap. The normal reference range for the anion gap is 8-16 mmol/L when not including potassium in the equation and 10-20 mmol/L when including potassium.

  • The anion gap exists because there are more unmeasured anions (mostly albumin, but others include lactate and sulfate) than cations (includes calcium and magnesium).
  • Metabolic acidosis is generally divided into those with high and those with normal anion gap.
  • High chloride (Cl-) associated with metabolic acidosis is most often due to compensation for gastrointestinal bicarbonate loss (eg, severe/prolonged diarrhoea).
  • Increased anion gap:
    • Lactic acidosis: shock, infection, hypoxia.
    • Urate (renal failure).
    • Ketones (diabetes mellitus, alcohol).
    • Drugs or toxins: salicylates, metformin, ethylene glycol, methanol, cyanide.
  • Normal anion gap (due to loss of bicarbonate or ingestion hydrogen ions):

These include:

Respiratory alkalosis results from hyperventilation - eg, anxiety, stroke, meningitis, altitude, pregnancy (see the separate article on Hyperventilation).

Treatment is of the underlying condition.

  • Cardiovascular effects: acidosis reduces cardiac contractility and both acidosis and alkalosis predispose to arrhythmias.
  • Nervous system effects: severe acidosis often causes impaired consciousness, ranging from mild drowsiness to coma.

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  • Lee Hamm L, Hering-Smith KS, Nakhoul NL; Acid-base and potassium homeostasis. Semin Nephrol. 2013 May 33(3):257-64. doi: 10.1016/j.semnephrol.2013.04.006.
  • Curthoys NP, Moe OW; Proximal Tubule Function and Response to Acidosis. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2014 May 1.
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  1. Sood P, Paul G, Puri S; Interpretation of arterial blood gas. Indian J Crit Care Med. 2010 Apr 14(2):57-64. doi: 10.4103/0972-5229.68215.
Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
1750 (v23)
Last Checked:
23 July 2014
Next Review:
22 July 2019

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