Biochemistry at The Biology Project

Clinical Correlates of pH Levels
Problem Set

Problem 5: Diagnosing acidosis/alkalosis

Tutorial to help answer this question

The normal range for blood pH is 7.35-7.45. Patients with acidosis or alkalosis will have pH values outside of this range.
A. True
B. False


Normal values
Normal Range of Bicarbonate Values in Blood
pH 7.35-7.45
(arterial blood)
35-45 mm Hg (=1.05-1.35 mM)
[HCO3-] 24-28 mmol/liter (= mM, = miliequivalents/liter)
HCO3-:CO2 ratio approximately 20 (related to pH by Henderson/Hasselbach equation)
Total CO2 content [HCO3-] + (pCO2 x 0.0301) = 25-29 mM


Patients are often encountered who significantly deviate from the normal values given above, yet nonetheless maintain blood pH within a range compatible with life. Such patients have compensated for circumstances that would normally produce acidosis or alkalosis.

The table below lists some of the changes observable in these different states.

respiratory metabolic
acidosis alkalosis acidosis alkalosis
pH decreased decreased decreased decreased
HCO3-:CO2 ratio decreased decreased decreased decreased
[HCO3-] increased decreased decreased decreased decreased decreased
pCO2 decreased decreased decreased decreased decreased increased
total CO2 decreased decreased decreased decreased decreased decreased
increased = increased
decreased = decreased
= no major change
U = uncompensated
C = compensated
increasedincreased = Red arrows indicate the primary defect.
increasedincreased = Green arrows indicate compensation mechanisms.

Notice that pH is nearly normal in compensated cases. The chart above highlights in red the "primary" indicator for respiratory problems, which is pCO2, and the "primary" indicator for metabolic problems, with is [HCO3-].

Because respiration is the main way we expel CO2, the fact that pCO2 is the primary indicator of a respiratory problem should be no surprise. However, the fact that [HCO3-] is the "primary" indicator for metabolic problems perhaps requires some explanation.

Suppose your patient has ingested an acid. The [H+] will obviously go up, pushing the bicarbonate equation to the left:

CO2 + H2O <--> [H2CO3] <--> H+ + HCO3-

Notice that, as the equilibrium shifts to the left, HCO3- levels are also affected (consumed, in this case). One could argue that pH (since it directly relates to [H+]) is the "primary" defect, but pH can be adjusted by compensatory mechanisms and so is not usually the most reliable measure. HCO3-, by its fluctuation from normal in response to metabolic (or exogenous) insults, is really what gives you the most reliable indicator of a "metabolic" problem.

The various compensatory mechanisms (some of which are shown in green above) are the subject of the last four questions in this problem set.

[Problem 5] [Answer] [Problem 6]

[Clinical Correlates] [Biochemistry] [Vocabulary] The Biology Project

The Biology Project
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics

The University of Arizona
January 1999
Revised: October 2004
Contact the Development Team
All contents copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.

The Biology Project Biochemistry