What Is an Anion Gap?

An Indication of Acid-Base Balance in the Blood

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Your overall health is depends in part on the body’s ability to keep blood within a neutral pH range, meaning it is not too acidic or basic. A blood test called a serum anion gap test is used by healthcare providers to diagnose conditions caused by an imbalance between the acids and bases in the blood.

The anion gap blood test, along with other diagnostic tests, can help healthcare professionals provide specific treatments, especially when individuals experience a sudden illness such as altered mental status or acute kidney failure.

Normal blood contains electrically charged particles. An anion gap is a difference between the positively charged particles and the negatively charged particles, called cations (sodium Na+ and potassium K+) and anions (chloride Cl- and bicarbonate HCO3-). These charged particles contribute to a blood’s pH.

Blood tests to be analyzed for anion gap
Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Purpose of the Anion Gap Blood Test

An anion gap test can help diagnose metabolic acidosis, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your blood becomes too acidic. It can also detect alkalosis, when your blood is not acidic enough. It is important to find the cause and treat it as soon as possible. 

Metabolic acidosis may occur due to:

  • Ketone build-up as a consequence of uncontrolled diabetes (diabetic ketoacidosis)
  • Ingestion of certain medications, or toxicity from methanol, aspirin overdose, or antifreeze
  • Severe infections
  • Excessive diarrhea (extreme loss of bicarbonate)
  • Medical conditions such as cancer
  • Kidney disease, including proximal renal tubular acidosis—a condition in which the kidneys do not reabsorb enough bicarbonate and therefore it is lost in the urine
  • Respiratory distress

Lactic acid builds up following vigorous exercise (lactic acidosis), but this is not typically enough to cause changes in the body's pH.

Indications

You might need an anion gap blood test if you experience symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance such as:

During the Anion Gap Blood Test

The anion gap blood test usually takes less than five minutes and doesn't require any specific preparation. During the anion gap blood test:

  • A healthcare professional uses a needle to puncture your skin and access a vein.
  • They then draw a small sample of blood into a tube.
  • The tube of blood is sent to the laboratory for analysis and the anion gap is calculated.

The anion gap blood test is relatively safe and may be done at a hospital, emergency room, or in a lab. You may have slight pain or bruising at the injection site.

The anion gap is not usually ordered as a separate test. It tends to be ordered as part of an electrolyte panel, basic metabolic panel (BMP), or comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP).

The most common method of evaluation of metabolic acidosis involves the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation and the Lewis model interpretation of biological acidosis, which evaluates the plasma concentration of hydrogen ions.

What Does It Mean When Your Anion Gap Is Low or High?

A low anion gap means you have a lower amount of acid in your blood than normal, but this result is uncommon and usually due to a lab error. A low anion gap test result may be caused by alkalosis.

A high anion gap test result means you have more acid in your blood than normal. A high anion gap test result may be caused by acidosis.

Although there are differences between laboratories and assays, the anion gap normal range has traditionally been set between 8 mEq/L to 12 mEq/L. But, there is a wide range of normal values—often 8 to 10 mEq/L—thus an increase in anion concentration can be present in the absence of an increased anion gap.

What to Ask Your Healthcare Provider

A low or high anion gap does not necessarily mean that you have anything to worry about. The anion gap normal range varies from person to person, so make sure you ask your healthcare provider to interpret the results of the test for you. 

Treatment

Correcting the underlying cause of the high anion gap (metabolic acidosis) is the primary way to mitigate potential serious health consequences.

In mild to moderate acidosis, treatment may include supportive measures, such as intravenous (IV) fluids and respiratory support. Alkalization therapy may be used for individuals with severe acidosis (pH less than 7.1 and bicarbonate less than 6 mEq/L). 

To fix a low anion gap, treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Treatment options may include:

  • Oxygen therapy if your oxygen level is low
  • Chloride and potassium if alkalosis is due to a mineral or electrolyte loss
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Association of Clinical Chemistry. Electrolytes and anion gap.

  2. Bianchetti DGAM, Amelio GS, Lava SAG, et al. D-lactic acidosis in humans: systematic literature reviewPediatr Nephrol. 2018;33(4):673-681. doi:10.1007/s00467-017-3844-8

  3. Ghauri SK, Javaeed A, Mustafa KJ, Podlasek A, Khan AS. Bicarbonate therapy for critically ill patients with metabolic acidosis: A systematic reviewCureus. 2019;11(3):e4297. doi:10.7759/cureus.4297

  4. MedlinePlus. Alkalosis.

By Shamard Charles, MD, MPH
Shamard Charles, MD, MPH is a public health physician and journalist. He has held positions with major news networks like NBC reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.