Methaemoglobin is haemoglobin with the iron oxidised to the ferric (Fe+++) state from the normal (or reduced) ferrous (Fe++) state. Methaemoglobinaemia refers to the presence of greater than the normal physiological concentration of 1 to 2% methaemoglobin in erythrocytes.
Methaemoglobin is incapable of transporting oxygen. It has an intense dark blue colour; thus, clinical cyanosis becomes apparent at a concentration of about 15%. The symptoms are manifestations of hypoxaemia with increasing concentrations of methaemoglobin. Concentrations in excess of 70% are rare, but are associated with a high incidence of mortality.
Methaemoglobinaemia may be congenital but is most often acquired. Congenital methaemoglobinaemia is of two types. The first is haemoglobin M disease (several variants) which is due to the presence of amino acid substitutions in either the a or β chains. The second type is due to a deficiency of the NADH-dependent methaemoglobin reductase enzyme. This deficiency has an autosomal dominant transmission, and both homozygous and heterozygous forms have been reported. The heterozygous form is not normally associated with clinical cyanosis, but such individuals are more susceptible to form methaemoglobin when exposed to inducing agents.
A wide variety of chemicals including several drugs, e.g. the antimalarials chloroquine and primaquine, local anaesthetics such as lignocaine, benzocaine and prilocaine, glyceryl trinitrate, sulphonamides and phenacetin, have been reported to induce methaemoglobinaemia.
An intense ‘chocolate brown’coloured blood and central cyanosis unresponsive to the administration of 100% oxygen suggests the diagnosis. A simple bedside test using a drop of the patient’s blood on filter paper helps to confirm the clinical suspicion. Methaemoglobin can be quantitated rapidly by a spectrophotometric method.
The intravenous administration of methylene blue (tetramethylthionine chloride) is a specific treatment for acquired methaemoglobinaemia, but may be ineffective in chlorate poisoning. Chlorate poisoning and severe cases of methaemoglobinaemia require exchange transfusion. Hyperbaric oxygen can sustain life during preparations for exchange transfusion.
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