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Cells need glucose (sugar) and insulin to function properly. Glucose comes from the food you eat, and insulin is produced by the pancreas. When you drink alcohol, your pancreas may stop producing insulin for a short time. Without insulin, your cells won’t be able to use the glucose you consume for energy. To get the energy you need, your body will start to burn fat.
When your body burns fat for energy, byproducts known as ketone bodies are produced. If your body is not producing insulin, ketone bodies will begin to build up in your bloodstream. This buildup of ketones can produce a life-threatening condition known as ketoacidosis.
Ketoacidosis, or metabolic acidosis, occurs when you ingest something that is metabolized or turned into an acid. This condition has a number of causes, including:
In addition to general ketoacidosis, there are several specific types. These types include:
Each of these situations increases the amount of acid in the system. They can also reduce the amount of insulin your body produces, leading to the breakdown of fat cells and the production of ketones.
Alcoholic ketoacidosis can develop when you drink excessive amounts of alcohol for a long period of time. Excessive alcohol consumption often causes malnourishment (not enough nutrients for the body to function well).
People who drink large quantities of alcohol may not eat regularly. They may also vomit as a result of drinking too much. Not eating enough or vomiting can lead to periods of starvation. This further reduces the body’s insulin production.
If a person is already malnourished due to alcoholism, they may develop alcoholic ketoacidosis. This can occur as soon as one day after a drinking binge, depending on nutritional status, overall health status, and the amount of alcohol consumed.
The symptoms of alcoholic ketoacidosis will vary based on how much alcohol you have consumed. Symptoms will also depend on the amount of ketones in your bloodstream. Common symptoms of alcoholic ketoacidosis include:
If you develop any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical attention. Alcoholic ketoacidosis is a life-threatening illness.
Someone with alcoholic ketoacidosis may also have other conditions that are associated with alcohol abuse. These may include:
These conditions have to be ruled out before a medical professional can diagnose you with alcoholic ketoacidosis.
If you have symptoms of alcoholic ketoacidosis, your doctor will perform a physical examination. They will also ask about your health history and alcohol consumption. If your doctor suspects that you’ve developed this condition, they may order additional tests to rule out other possible conditions. After these test results are in, they can confirm the diagnosis.
Tests may include the following:
If your blood glucose level is elevated, your doctor may also perform a hemoglobin A1C (HgA1C) test. This test will provide information about your sugar levels to help determine whether you have diabetes. If you have diabetes, you may need additional treatment.
Treatment for alcoholic ketoacidosis is typically administered in the emergency room. Your doctor will monitor your vital signs, including your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. They will also give you fluids intravenously. You may receive vitamins and nutrients to help treat malnutrition, including:
Your doctor may also admit you to the intensive care unit (ICU) if you require ongoing care. The length of your hospital stay depends on the severity of the alcoholic ketoacidosis. It also depends on how long it takes to get your body regulated and out of danger. If you have any additional complications during treatment, this will also affect the length of your hospital stay.
One complication of alcoholic ketoacidosis is alcohol withdrawal. Your doctor and other medical professionals will watch you for symptoms of withdrawal. If you have severe symptoms, they may give you medication. Alcoholic ketoacidosis may lead to gastrointestinal bleeding.
Other complications may include:
If you are diagnosed with alcoholic ketoacidosis, your recovery will depend on a number of factors. Seeking help as soon as symptoms arise reduces your chances of serious complications. Treatment for alcohol addiction is also necessary to prevent a relapse of alcoholic ketoacidosis.
Your prognosis will be impacted by the severity of your alcohol use and whether or not you have liver disease. Prolonged used of alcohol can result in cirrhosis, or permanent scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis of the liver can cause exhaustion, leg swelling, and nausea. It will have a negative effect on your overall prognosis.
You can prevent alcoholic ketoacidosis by limiting your alcohol intake. If you are addicted to alcohol, seek professional help. You can learn how to reduce your alcohol intake or eliminate it altogether. Joining a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous may provide you with the support you need to cope. You should also follow all of your doctor’s recommendations to ensure proper nutrition and recovery.
Written by: Darla Burke and Diana K. Wells
Medically reviewed on: Nov 15, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP
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