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Medicine (Baltimore). 2004 Sep;83(5):265-73.

Acquired methemoglobinemia: a retrospective series of 138 cases at 2 teaching hospitals.

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  • 1Division of General Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, USA.


Methemoglobin is a form of hemoglobin that does not bind oxygen. When its concentration is elevated in red blood cells, functional anemia and tissue hypoxia may occur. We performed a retrospective case series to describe the cases of acquired methemoglobinemia (methemoglobin level >2%) detected and the clinical circumstances under which they occurred at 2 tertiary care hospitals and affiliated outpatient clinics over 28 months. We surveyed co-oximetry laboratory data to identify patients with methemoglobinemia. We reviewed these patients' medical records to extract the clinical information and context. One hundred thirty-eight cases of acquired methemoglobinemia were detected over the 28 months. There was no gender predisposition, and the condition occurred over a wide range of ages (patients aged 4 days to 86 years). Cases occurred in many areas of the hospital, including outpatient clinics. One fatality and 3 near-fatalities were directly attributable to methemoglobinemia. Dapsone was the most common etiology of acquired methemoglobinemia, accounting for 42% of all cases. The mean peak methemoglobin level among these individuals was 7.6%. In 5 of the patients with the most severely elevated levels, 20% benzocaine spray (Hurricaine Topical Anesthetic spray, Beutlich Pharmaceuticals, Waukegan, IL) was the etiology, associated with a mean peak methemoglobin level of 43.8%. Eleven pediatric patients developed methemoglobinemia either from exogenous exposure, such as drugs, or due to serious illness, such as gastrointestinal infections with dehydration. Almost all (94%) patients with methemoglobinemia were anemic. Drugs that cause acquired methemoglobinemia are ubiquitous in both the hospital and the outpatient setting. Acquired methemoglobinemia is a treatable condition that causes significant morbidity and even mortality. We hope that a heightened awareness of methemoglobinemia will result in improved recognition and treatment. Primary prevention efforts have the potential to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with this condition.

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