9 causes of high blood serum lactate level & their meaning

Do you suffer from migraines? Is your skin constantly jaundiced? Odds are you suffer from elevated lactate levels. Though not many people know about this condition, it can be fatal when untreated. Are your symptoms a reason to visit your doctor, or can you treat them on your own?

In this article, we’ll go through 9 causes of high blood serum lactate level and their meaning.

people running

What is lactic acidosis?

A type of metabolic acidosis, this health condition occurs when you have too much lactic acid in your bloodstream. It means your body either produces too much lactic acid or fails to metabolize it fast enough. Lactic acid is the final product of anaerobic respiration. High levels typically mean your cells don’t receive enough oxygen.

Your liver and kidneys are the primary organs that metabolize the lactic acid in your body. Certain health conditions that affect these organs can lead to this acidosis. A poor metabolism rate will cause lactate to build up in your bloodstream, resulting in this condition.

As the name suggests, the substance is an acid. Your normal blood pH should be about 7.45. It can be defined as mostly neutral or slightly alkaline/basic. High lactate levels will shift your pH to acidic levels, which isn’t natural for your body.

From a chemical standpoint, lactate has two forms: an L- and D-form. This condition is largely caused by the L-form.

Doctors recognize two types of lactic acidosis:

  • Type A: Type results from poor blood flow. It means less oxygen reaches your tissues, resulting in lactic acidosis.
  • Type B: This condition happens when the cells don’t function properly and when some of your tissues don’t get enough blood flow.

What is the normal range & level of lactic acid?

Normal levels of lactate in your body depend on your other conditions. As a rule of thumb, they should lie between 4.5 and 19.8 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). This is equal to 0.5 to 2.2 mmol/L (millimoles per liter).

woman running

Elevated lactate levels might otherwise lead to lactic acidosis. It often causes additional health conditions, some of which are serious. It leads to symptoms such as sweating, vomiting, and even coma. Breathless and rapid breathing are also possible due to low oxygen levels.

But these symptoms alone are not enough for proper diagnosis. You should visit a doctor as soon as possible to take the necessary tests. Alternatively, you can buy the test yourself and perform it at home. If you suffer from this condition, seek medical attention immediately.

What does lactic acid do?

Though lactic acid has some benefits, it is primarily the end product of anaerobic respiration.

Your cells produce energy by breaking down carbon-rich substances such as glucose. But they need oxygen to do so. Aerobic respiration draws electrons from oxygen and converts them to carbon dioxide, a waste product.

The presence of oxygen determines if your cells will go for aerobic or anaerobic respiration. They first break glucose down to pyruvic acid (or pyruvate). Low oxygens levels will cause this substance to enter anaerobic respiration. The final product of this process is lactic acid.

Excessive anaerobic respiration causes two problems. Firstly, it barely produces 10% of its aerobic counterpart’s energy. And secondly, it can lead to lactic acidosis. High lactate levels will raise the acidity of your blood, which can be life-threatening.

Your body also produces this substance through other means. It is because slow amounts are vital for your health. Lactate serves as a signaling molecule and potentially a source of energy.

woman working out

Critical lactate level

Elevated lactate levels are above 2.2 mmol/L. Severe lactic acidosis occurs when they rise above 4 mmol/L. Such alarmingly high levels can damage your heart and potentially lead to death. Seek medical attention immediately if your readings are above 4 mmol/L.

You might also suffer from symptoms such as exhaustion and muscle pain. Vomiting and diarrhea are also possible.

What are the symptoms of lactic acidosis?

Lactic acidosis manifests itself via several symptoms. Though taking a test is the only way to know for sure, observing these symptoms can help you better identify your condition. Because high lactate levels are tied to poor oxygen saturation, the symptoms affect mostly your respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Here are 10 symptoms of elevated lactate levels:

  • Your breath may smell fruit-like
  • Your skin, eyes, and nails may be jaundiced.
  • You may be breathing shallowly and rapidly.
  • You feel exhausted all the time.
  • You experience muscle cramps and pain.
  • Your abdomen hurts
  • You experience diarrhea and vomiting.
  • You suffer from migraines.
  • You suffer from an increased heart rate.
  • You experience a loss of appetite.

If you experience most or all these symptoms, it might be time to take a test to confirm your suspicions. You can try one of the tests we recommend below. Alternatively, you can visit your doctor and take the test there.

What causes high lactate levels

The following conditions might lead to lactic acidosis:

  1. Heart complications

Some heart diseases might lead to poor blood flow. Reduced blow flow means less oxygen reaches your tissues, resulting in elevated lactate levels.

  1. Sepsis

Severe infection lowers oxygen levels and thus increases the risk of lactic acidosis. Sepsis of both bacterial and viral nature can cause this issue.


The HIV virus isn’t directly responsible for this condition. However, the medications can lead to fluctuations in lactic levels. They might also harm the liver, slowing down the lactic acid metabolism.

  1. Cancer

Cancer cells have severely damaged DNA. It causes them to multiply rapidly and produce high amounts of lactate.

  1. Short bowel syndrome

Short bowel might lead to bacteria multiplying in your intestine. As they multiply, they produce D-lactate. It may lead to acidosis.

  1. Frequent usage of acetaminophen

Research suggests that regular usage of acetaminophen (or Tylenol) might contribute to the development of this condition.

  1. Drinking too much alcohol

Moderate alcohol use doesn’t lead to elevated lactate levels. However, consuming too much alcohol regularly can lead to many health complications. One of them is liver and kidney damage. Liver and kidney damage might cause lactic acid to build up in your body.

guy working out
  1. Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide binds to your red blood cells better than oxygen. It’s present mostly in combustion fumes. If you breathe too much of it, oxygen levels will rapidly fall. In turn, it leads to spikes in your lactate levels.

  1. Malaria

Malaria is caused by a parasite that invades red blood cells. As a result, their number decreases. It means your tissues receive less oxygen, forcing your cells to produce more lactate.

How is lactic acidosis diagnosed?

The surest method to diagnose lactic acidosis is a fasting blood test. Ideally, you shouldn’t eat or drink anything for up to 10 hours before the test. That’s why it’s often taken in the morning. Some doctors might ask you to exercise less before the test to get the most accurate readings.

During the test itself, you shouldn’t strain your muscles in any way. Doing so might temporarily increase your lactate levels and compromise the test.

Best test at home

The EDGE lactate Meter

This meter will effectively measure your lactic acid levels. It displays the readings in both mmol/L and mg/dL. Though a bit costly, you won’t have to take the test at your doctor again. The usage is simple too. You just prick your finger and apply some blood on a test strip. The meter will then provide you with readings.

The EDGE lactate test strips

If you wish to perform the test at home, you can’t go wrong with this test strip package. It contains 25 strips which you won’t use up for a long time. They are simple to use and might spare you from visiting your doctor. Just make sure you store them well – between 39 °F and 86° F.

Lactic acidosis treatment

Luckily, lactic acidosis can be treated. While you can’t cure it at home, your doctor can accomplish this relatively quickly. The treatment consists of administering IV fluids that normalize the pH and reduce lactate levels. Your physician will also attempt to increase your blood oxygen to prevent this issue from reoccurring.

The key to full recovery is a timely intervention. Lactic acidosis won’t have permanent consequences if you nip it in the bud. If left unchecked, it can lead to organ failure and even death.

Preventing lactic acidosis

Prevention is the best medicine. Luckily, you can take 4 simple steps to prevent lactic acidosis.

Exercise regularly

Exercise improves the oxygenation of your tissues. In general, more oxygen means less lactate. You don’t have to overdo it. Simply walking is a great place to start. As it becomes easier, you can pick up the pace.

Drink plenty of water

Water makes up most of your body. Insufficient hydration indirectly leads to elevated lactate levels. Drinking enough water every day can dilute this substance and prevent acidosis.

Change your diet

A balanced diet has many health benefits. Apart from eating fruit and vegetables, you’ll also need vitamin B. Research suggests that this vitamin can reduce the amount of lactate in your blood. Some good sources are lean meat and whole-grain foods.

Improve your sleep schedule

Sleeping well every day can improve your blood circulation. Additionally, it lowers your stress levels. Sleeping for at least 7-8 hours each day can reduce your chances of developing this condition.


Why is lactate elevated in sepsis?

Elevated lactate levels during sepsis are often a sign of hypoxia. During a bacterial or viral infection, your blood oxygen levels drop. It causes lactic acid to build up in your bloodstream.

What does lactic acid do to the body?

This substance aids cell respiration and acts as a signaling molecule. It’s essential for normal bodily functions in large amounts. But when lactic acid builds up in your bloodstream, it leads to increased blood acidity. High blood acidity can cause organ failure and even death if untreated for too long.

High levels of this substance are often associated with low oxygen saturation too.

What is the difference between lactic acid and lactate?

Lactic acid is a substance in its standard form. Most acids undergo a process called dissociation in aqueous solutions such as blood. Lactate is the name for this dissociated acid. However, you can use both terms interchangeably for medical purposes.

A lactic acid build-up in muscles is a sign that.

The lactic acid build-up is a sign that your oxygen levels are low. It is because your cells undergo anaerobic respiration without enough oxygen. High lactate levels increase your blood acidity. Although this condition can be treated, it can prove fatal if you ignore it.

Typical symptoms of this condition are jaundice, migraines, and breathlessness. However, only a blood test can tell for sure. You can take one at home or your doctor’s.

Treatment is generally simple. Your doctor will try to boost your oxygen levels and neutralize the acid pH in your blood via IV fluids. Most patients recover fully from this condition.

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