Lactic acidosis is a type of metabolic acidosis that occurs when lactic acids build up in your blood. Your body produces more lactate when your tissues are deprived of oxygen. Lactate can also build up if your livers and kidneys aren’t able to metabolize it efficiently.
Lactic acidosis is a buildup of lactic acid in your bloodstream. It happens when your body produces too much lactic acid and/or can’t metabolize enough of the lactic acid it produces.
Moderate buildup of lactic acid in your blood is called hyperlactatemia. When it builds up enough to turn your body’s pH balance acidic, it’s called lactic acidosis.
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Lactic acid, also called lactate, is a natural byproduct of cellular metabolism. Our cells convert glucose (sugar) to lactate to use for energy in a process called anaerobic glycolysis. They do this when they’re in need of immediate energy that can’t be supplied by oxygen.
Aerobic metabolism, which relies on oxygen, is our usual go-to for a steady energy supply, but anaerobic glycolysis is our emergency backup. We might need to tap it for a short burst of intense exercise when our muscles are oxygen-deprived. We also use it when medical conditions deprive our tissues of oxygen.
What you may experience during lactic acidosis depends on how severe it is. Some people experience temporary lactic acidosis as a side effect of overexercising. This can make you feel sore for a while, but as long as your liver and kidneys are in good condition, they’ll eventually clear it.
It’s more serious when your body persistently produces too much lactic acid, or your liver and kidneys are consistently not functioning well enough to process it. This most often occurs in the context of illness. As your blood lactate levels continue to rise and pH levels fall, your cardiac output is increasingly suppressed. This can lead to organ failure and death.
Early symptoms of lactic acidosis include:
More advanced symptoms may include:
You might also have symptoms of the underlying conditions causing lactic acidosis, such as sepsis, shock or liver failure. These symptoms may include:
Healthcare providers have divided lactic acidosis into types based on different causes:
Type A lactic acidosis occurs when your tissues are deprived of oxygen. This most often happens in severe medical illnesses. It can also happen temporarily from excessive exercise.
Diseases that cause the overproduction of lactate include:
Type B lactic acidosis occurs without hypoxemia or hypoxia. It has three subcategories.
Type B1 is caused by underlying diseases that inhibit your ability to metabolize lactate.
These may include:
Type B2 occurs as a side effect of certain drugs and toxins, including:
Type B3 occurs from rare congenital deficiencies of specific enzymes required to metabolize lactate. These include:
Types A and B above refer to a buildup of L-lactate in your blood. L-lactate is the form of lactic acid that’s normally produced and metabolized by the human body.
Another, rare form of lactic acidosis occurs from a buildup of D-lactate. This type of lactic acid is produced by bacteria in your colon. The bacteria metabolize carbohydrates during digestion, and D-lactate is the byproduct.
D-lactic acidosis happens when there’s an overgrowth of these bacteria. The excess D-lactate is absorbed through your intestines into your bloodstream. D-lactate can’t be metabolized by your kidneys or liver, so it just continues to build up in your circulation. This is most typically a complication of short gut syndrome.
Lactic acidosis is defined by:
Healthcare providers will measure these values by taking a sample of your blood and testing it.
Tests to diagnose lactic acidosis include:
If you have transitory lactic acidosis from exertion, shivering or convulsions, this will pass with time. You can treat it at home with rest and hydration.
After that, treatment depends on the cause. Your healthcare team will work to manage the underlying disease or toxicity that’s causing lactic acidosis, based on your symptoms.
In the absence of low oxygen findings, they’ll consider various type B causes and attend to those specifically.
Outcomes depend on the cause and how severe it is. Type A lactic acidosis — associated with sepsis, shock and/or impaired blood oxygen flow — is more critical. Other types of lactic acidosis may be milder and slower to onset, allowing more time and opportunity to intervene. In general, higher blood lactate levels correlate with higher mortality rates. But early and effective treatment can end in a full recovery.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Lactic acidosis is one of several types of metabolic acidosis that occur when acids build up in your blood. In metabolic acidosis, normal metabolic processes that produce and manage acids in your body break down in some way. Normally, your liver and kidneys can help filter out excess acids, but if they aren’t in good working condition, they’ll be less fit to manage acidosis. Taking care of your liver and kidneys by staying hydrated and limiting alcohol and drug use can go a long way toward protecting your long-term health.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/13/2023.
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