UMEM Educational Pearls

Is it possible to have a patient present in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) with both negative serum and urinary ketone levels?

A case report published in American Journal of Emergency Medicine by Jehle et al provides a helpful reminder of this phenomenon (1). The degree of acidosis is directly related to the ratio of the various ketones/ketone metabolites: acetone, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate present in the serum. The proportion of each respective substance is determined by the existing redox state in the blood. At any given time, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate exist in an equilibrium dependent upon the ratio of NAD+ and NADH(fig.1). These substances freely convert with the assistance of the enzyme beta-hydroxybutyrate dehydrogenase (2). This conversion requires the donation of a hydrogen atom from NADH. The balance between beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetoacetate, is determined by the ratio of NADH to NAD+. Acetoacetate will freely degrade into acetone through non-enzymatic decarboxylation. Early in DKA, acetoacetate is the most prevalent substance. As the disease progresses and the serum ratio of NADH to NAD+ increases, the proportion of beta-hydroxybutyrate rises, decreasing the quantity of acetoacetate and acetone.

Traditional serum and urinary ketone assays react strongly to acetoacetate but neither reliably react with beta-hydroxybutyrate. Patients in whom the majority of their anion gap is filled by beta-hydroxybutyrate, urinary or serum ketone levels may be negative. In such cases, serum beta-hydroxybutyrate assays would be positive but are not universally available.

It is important to note, with resuscitation and insulin therapy, the ratio of NADH/NAD+ will start to normalize causing an increase in the quantity of acetoacetate. As the patient improves and the anion gap clears, the degree of ketones detected in the serum and urine will paradoxically increase.


1. Jehle D, et al, Severe diabetic ketoacidosis presenting with negative serum ketones: First case report and a review of the mechanism, Am J Emerg Med (2016)

2. Konijn, Abraham M., Naama Carmel, and Nathan A. Kaufmann. The redox state and the concentration of ketone bodies in tissues of rats fed carbohydrate free diets. The Journal of nutrition 10 (1976): 1507.