Lactate Level in Kids


Patients’ families often present to us requesting “bloodwork” to make sure that the child is not “sick” or to tell them “what’s wrong.”  While we all know that no lab can be used to proclaim complete certainty of a patient’s health or to make a definitive diagnosis on its own, often we perpetuate the myth by ordering labs that do not necessarily direct our actions.  By now, most of you know of my disdain for the ubiquitous WBC count (The Last Bastion of the Intellectually Destitute – Amal Mattu), but there is another often ordered test that may also fall into that category — the Lactate Level.

The Lactate Level has grown in popularity over the past decade, particularly in the Adult EDs.  Certainly, there is literature that supports its utility with respect to evaluation of SEPSIS and trauma, but this often becomes extrapolated to all patients who “may be sick” as a means to find the covertly ill.  This  approach (often in a “shotgun” fashion) has steadily crept into the Pediatric EDs as well.  What is the known utility of Lactate Level in children? [Thank you @ErnestoAlarco12 for inspiring the question].


Lactate Level – Basic BioChem

  • Just in case you don’t recall BioChem class as well as you used to…
  • During Glycolysis glucose is converted into Pyruvate.
    • Through AEROBIC metabolism, pyruvate is used to generate 2 Acetyl-CoA and eventually many ATPs, H2O, and CO2 (remember the Krebs cycle?).
    • When there is not enough Oxygen around (ANAEROBIC metabolism), then pyruvate is converted into Lactate.
    • Lactate can be converted back to pyruvate once the oxygen deficit has been corrected.
    • Well that was a fun walk down memory lane.
  • With this in mind, elevated lactate levels would potentially reflect tissue oxygen deficit.
  • Under normal conditions, lactate is rapidly cleared by the liver, with some assistance from the kidneys. (Anderson, 2013)
  • There is no standardized levels:
    • Most studies use cutoff values of 2.0 to 2.5 mmol/L.
    • Many define “High” as a Lactate level > 4.0 mmol/L. (Anderson, 2013)


Lactate Level – Some Causes of Lactate Elevation

Most often elevated Lactate Levels conjure thoughts of tissue hypoperfusion with diminished access to oxygen (SHOCK), but there are others causes to consider. (Anderson, 2013)

  • Global ischemia (SHOCK)
  • Regional ischemia (ex, mesenteric ischemia, burns, trauma, compartment syndrome)
  • High Metabolic States (ex, seizures, heavy exercise, increased work of breathing)
  • Drugs (ex, Metformin, epinephrine, propofol, acetominophen, beta-2-agonists)
  • Toxins (ex, Cocaine, Cyanide, Carbon monoxide, alcohols)
  • Malignancies
  • Liver Disease (can’t clear the lactate)
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis
  • Thiamine Deficiency (w/o thiamine, anaerobic metabolism predominates)
  • Inborn Errors of Metabolism and Mitochondrial Diseases


Lactate Level – Elevation in Kids

  • In the PICU:
    • Studies of SEPSIS have shown increased mortality in the setting of elevated lactate levels. (Jat, 2011)
    • Monitoring serial lactate levels in patients following surgery for congenital heart disease can help discriminate patients at high risk. (Schumacher, 2014; Agrawal, 2012)
    • Poor lactate clearance (< 30% at 6 hours) has been associated with increased risk of mortality. (Munde, 2012)
    • High lactate level upon admission to the PICU is associated with in-hospital mortality. (Bai, 2014)
  • In the ED:
    • High lactate levels can be useful to help “rule-in” severe bacterial infection in children in the ED. (Vorwek, 2011)
    • High lactate levels identify a population at higher risk for severe outcomes amongst the kids with SIRS in the Peds ED. (Scott, 2012)
    • After Return of Spontaneous Circulation following a resuscitation, higher lactate levels are associated with higher likelihood of death, although don’t predict outcomes. (Topjian, 2013)
    • Elevated lactate levels obtained in pediatric trauma patients during prehospital transport are associated with increased need for critical care. (Shah, 2013)


Lactate Level – Did it Help You?

  • Thus far, we see that, like in adults, an elevated lactate can help identify those patients who are potentially sicker than others, although not perfectly.
  • One issue is that, often, an astute clinician would generate a similar assessment of clinical severity. (Scott, 2012)
  • Another issue is that, when obtained in the “shotgun” approach of obtaining labs, often the confounders (see above) are not taken into account.
  • It is only helpful if it alerts you to severe illness presenting subtly or helps direct your resuscitation efforts… which, again, require the astute clinician to determine.



Munde A1, Kumar N, Beri RS, Puliyel JM. Lactate clearance as a marker of mortality in pediatric intensive care unit. Indian Pediatr. 2014 Jul;51(7):565-7. PMID: 25031136. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Bai Z, Zhu X, Li M, Hua J, Li Y, Pan J, Wang J, Li Y1. Effectiveness of predicting in-hospital mortality in critically ill children by assessing blood lactate levels at admission. BMC Pediatr. 2014 Mar 28;14:83. PMID: 24673817. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Schumacher KR1, Reichel RA2, Vlasic JR2, Yu S2, Donohue J2, Gajarski RJ2, Charpie JR2. Rate of increase in serum lactate level risk-stratifies infants after surgery for congenital heart disease. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2014 Aug;148(2):589-95. PMID: 24138790. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Shah A1, Guyette F, Suffoletto B, Schultz B, Quintero J, Predis E, King C. Diagnostic accuracy of a single point-of-care prehospital serum lactate for predicting outcomes in pediatric trauma patients. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2013 Jun;29(6):715-9. PMID: 23714761. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Topjian AA1, Clark AE, Casper TC, Berger JT, Schleien CL, Dean JM, Moler FW; Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network. Early lactate elevations following resuscitation from pediatric cardiac arrest are associated with increased mortality*. Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2013 Oct;14(8):e380-7. PMID: 23925146. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Andersen LW1, Mackenhauer J, Roberts JC, Berg KM, Cocchi MN, Donnino MW. Etiology and therapeutic approach to elevated lactate levels. Mayo Clin Proc. 2013 Oct;88(10):1127-40. PMID: 24079682. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Agrawal A1, Agrawal N, Das J, Varma A. Point of care serum lactate levels as a prognostic marker of outcome in complex pediatric cardiac surgery patients: Can we utilize it? Indian J Crit Care Med. 2012 Oct;16(4):193-7. PMID: 23559725. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Vorwerk C1, Manias K, Davies F, Coats TJ. Prediction of severe bacterial infection in children with an emergency department diagnosis of infection. Emerg Med J. 2011 Nov;28(11):948-51. PMID: 20971726. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Jat KR1, Jhamb U, Gupta VK. Serum lactate levels as the predictor of outcome in pediatric septic shock. Indian J Crit Care Med. 2011 Apr;15(2):102-7. PMID: 21814374. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Sean M. Fox
Sean M. Fox

I enjoy taking care of patients and I finding it endlessly rewarding to help train others to do the same. I trained at the Combined Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics residency program at University of Maryland, where I had the tremendous fortune of learning from world renowned educators and clinicians. Now I have the unbelievable honor of working with an unbelievably gifted group of practitioners at Carolinas Medical Center. I strive every day to inspire my residents as much as they inspire me.

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  1. My kid went under hemitruncus surgery, after 14 days of surgery the last lactate level test is 2.5, she only 3 weeks old.

    Does it seems to be ok or according to you the lactate seems to be higher?

    Thanks in advance

  2. My grandson age 3.5 has complained of severe intermittent pain left arm for the last month. No fractures present or past.his lactate levels are elevated. What could cause this?

    • I am sorry that your grandson has not been feeling well.
      Obviously, I cannot give specific advice out over the internet. I will say that an elevated Lactate level on its own can be related to many, many things and some are not of any concern, while others are. You need to discuss your specific concerns with your grandson’s team of physicians.
      All the best,

  3. My baby (fimale) age 4.5 years now problem breathing slow & she is not normal when unknown people talk with her, unrest atatute see book & say figer name like birds name, animal name, flower name, see computer or mobile rayms cartoon.Her blood report refarance value Lactate 28 mg/dl & Ammonia refarance value 49 umol/L. Thanks

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