Why does my patient with alcoholic cirrhosis have macrocytic anemia?

Macrocytic anemia is commonly due to folate or vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency.1 Deficiency in these vitamins can be related broadly to poor intake, poor absorption, or drug interference. In patients with chronic excess alcohol consumption, both intake and/or absorption of these vitamins may be affected.

Although folate deficiency is increasingly rare in many developed countries due to mandatory folate fortification of flour and uncooked-grain, alcohol use can be associated with malnourishment severe enough to causes folate deficiency. In addition, alcohol itself can alter folate metabolism and absorption.  More specifically, chronic alcohol consumption has been shown to be associated with decreased folate absorption by the small intestine, altered intrahepatic processing and distribution between the systemic and enterohepatic folate circulations as well as increased folate urinary excretion. 2 Though uncommon,3 alcohol can also be associated with a food B12 malabsorption process, whereby despite adequate intake, B12 is not released or absorbed from food. 4

But what if serum folate and B12 levels return as normal in our patient with macrocytosis? It turns out that alcohol consumption, independent of folate or B12 deficiency, may also cause macrocytosis. 5 Though the exact mechanism is unknown, it may be related to alcohol’s direct toxicity or that of its metabolites; alcohol is oxidized to acetaldehyde, which affects membranes of red blood cells (RBCs) and their precursors by forming adducts with erythroid proteins,6 and interfering with cell division.7 Interestingly, alcohol-related macrocytosis may appear before anemia is detected and can resolve within 2-4 months of abstinence.

In addition to alcohol, cirrhosis itself may be associated with macrocytic anemia caused by lipid deposition on RBC membranes.1

See also a related pearl at  https://pearls4peers.com/2019/07/26/my-patient-with-anemia-has-an-abnormally-high-mean-red-blood-cell-corpuscular-volume-mcv-what-conditions-should-i-routinely-consider-as-a-cause-of-his-macrocytic-anemia   


  1. Hoffbrand V, Provan D. ABC of clinical haematology: macrocytic anaemias. BMJ 2011;314(7078):430–430. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9040391
  2. Medici V, Halsted CH. Folate, alcohol, and liver disease. Mol Nutr Food Res 2013;57(4):596–606. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23136133
  3. Bode C, Bode CJ. Effect of alcohol consumption on the gut. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol [Internet] 2003;17(4):575–92. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1521691803000349
  4. Dali-Youcef N, Andrès E. An update on cobalamin deficiency in adults. QJM 2009;102(1):17–28. https://academic.oup.com/qjmed/article/102/1/17/1502492
  5. Savage DG, Ogundipe A, Allen RH, Stabler SP, Lindenbaum J. Etiology and diagnostic Evaluation of macrocytosis. Am J Med Sci [Internet] 2000;319(6):343–52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9629(15)40772-4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10875288
  6. Latvala J, Parkkila S, Melkko J, Niemelä O. Acetaldehyde adducts in blood and bone marrow of patients with ethanol-induced erythrocyte abnormalities. Mol Med 2001;7(6):401–5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11474133
  7. Wickramasinghe SN, Malik F. Acetaldehyde causes a prolongation of the doubling time and an increase in the modal volume of cells in culture. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1986;10(3):350–4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3526962


Contributed by Kim Schaefer, Harvard medical student, Boston, MA

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Why does my patient with alcoholic cirrhosis have macrocytic anemia?

My patient with anemia has an abnormally high mean red blood cell corpuscular volume (MCV). What conditions should I routinely consider as a cause of his macrocytic anemia?

Anemia with mean corpuscular volume (MCV) above the upper limit of normal (usually ≥ 100 fL) is considered macrocytic anemia. The numerous causes of macrocytic anemia can be divided into major categories (1,2) (Figure 1).

First, a reticulocyte production index should be calculated and if elevated the MCV can be above the normal range due to the large size of reticulocytes. Once high MCV is not thought to be related to reticulocytosis, the majority of macrocytic anemias can be categorized according to one of two major mechanisms: 1. Liver disease; and  2. Impairment of DNA synthesis, which includes nutritional deficiencies (folate, B12), drug effect (e.g co-trimoxazole, anti-neoplastic agents and certain anti-retroviral drugs) and “idiopathic” causes (myelodysplastic syndromes).

Mild macrocytosis can also be seen in hypothyroidism and hypoproliferative anemias such as aplastic anemia.  Macrocytosis without anemia or liver disease can also be a manifestation of heavy alcohol intake.

Macrocytic anemia in liver disease is due to excess lipid deposition in the red blood cell (RBC) membrane, not impairment of DNA synthesis. Enlarged RBCs are usually round and  often have a targeted appearance in liver disease; acanthocytes (spur cells) may also be present (Fig 2). In contrast, in disorders of impaired DNA synthesis, enlarged RBCs are often oval-shaped (macro-ovalocytes) (Fig 3).

Other common abnormalities seen with macrocytic anemia include hypersegmented neutrophils (eg, induced by B12 or folate deficiency), and in the case of myelodysplastic syndromes, hypogranulated neutrophils and Pelger-Huet neutrophil abnormalities.

Bonus pearl: Did you know that the MCV unit, fL, stands for femtoliters or 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 L? 


Figure 1. Major causes of macrocytic anemia. MDS: myelodysplastic syndrome.


Macrocytic_Anemia_Figure 1

Fig 2. Round macrocytes with targeting and abundant acanthocytes (spur cells) in a patient with hepatic cirrhosis.


Macrocytic_Anemia_Figure 2

Fig 3. Oval macrocytes in a patient with large granular cell leukemia and an MCV of 125 fL who received cyclophosphamide.


  1. Ward PC. Investigation of Macrocytic Anemia. Postgrad Med 1979; 65: 203-207. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/368738
  2. Green R, Dwyre DM. Evaluation of macrocytic anemias. Semin Hematol 2015; 52: 279-286. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0037196315000554


Contributed by Tom Spitzer, MD, Director of Cellular Therapy and Transplantation Laboratory, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA.

My patient with anemia has an abnormally high mean red blood cell corpuscular volume (MCV). What conditions should I routinely consider as a cause of his macrocytic anemia?

My middle age patient complains of night sweats for several months, but she has had no weight loss and does not appear ill. What could I be missing?

Night sweats (NS) is a common patient complaint, affecting about a third of hospitalized patients on medical wards1.  Despite its long list of potential causes, direct relationship between the often- cited conditions and NS is usually unclear2, its cause may remain elusive In about a third to half of cases in the primary care setting, and its prognosis, at least in those >65 y of age, does not appear to be unfavorable 2,3.

Selected commonly and less frequently cited conditions associated with NS are listed (Table)2-9.  Although tuberculosis is one of the first conditions we think of when faced with a patient with NS, it should be emphasized that NS is not common in this disease (unless advanced) and is rare among hospitalized patients as a cause of their NS1,9.

In one of the larger study of adult patients seen in primary care setting, 23% reported pure NS and an additional 18% reported night and day sweats5; the prevalence of NS in both men and women was highest in 41-55 y age group. In multivariate analyses, factors associated with pure NS in women were hot flashes and panic attacks; in men, sleep disorders. 

Table. Selected causes of night sweats

Commonly cited Less frequently cited
Neoplastic/hematologic (eg, lymphoma, leukemia, myelofibrosis)

Infections (eg, HIV, tuberculosis, endocarditis)

Endocrine (eg, ovarian failure, hyperthyroidism, orchiectomy, carcinoid tumor, diabetes mellitus [nocturnal hypoglycemia], pheochromocytoma)

Rheumatologic (eg, giant cell arteritis)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

B-12 deficiency

Pulmonary embolism

Drugs (eg, anti-depressants, SSRIs, donepezil [Aricept], tacatuzumab)

Sleep disturbances (eg, obstructive sleep apnea)

Panic attacks/anxiety disorder



Diabetes insipidus


  1. Lea MJ, Aber RC, Descriptive epidemiology of night sweats upon admission to a university hospital. South Med J 1985;78:1065-67.
  2. Mold JW, Holtzclaw BJ, McCarthy L. Night sweats: A systematic review of the literature. J Am Board Fam Med 2012; 25-878-893.
  3. Mold JW, Lawler F. The prognostic implications of night sweats in two cohorts of older patients. J Am Board Fam Med 2010;23:97-103.
  4. Mold JW, Holtzclaw BJ. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and night sweats in a primary care population. Drugs-Real World Outcomes 2015;2:29-33.
  5. Mold JW, Mathew MK, Belgore S, et al. Prevalence of night sweats in primary care patients: An OKPRN and TAFP-Net collaborative study. J Fam Pract 2002; 31:452-56.
  6. Feher A, Muhsin SA, Maw AM. Night sweats as a prominent symptom of a patient presenting with pulmonary embolism. Case reports in Pulmonology 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/841272
  7. Rehman HU. Vitamin B12 deficiency causing night sweats. Scottish Med J 2014;59:e8-11.
  8. Murday HK, Rusli FD, Blandy C, et al. Night sweats: it may be hemochromatosis. Climacteric 2016;19:406-8.
  9. Fred HL. Night sweats. Hosp Pract 1993 (Aug 15):88.
My middle age patient complains of night sweats for several months, but she has had no weight loss and does not appear ill. What could I be missing?

How should I interpret high serum vitamin B12 levels in my patient with anemia?

High serum B12 levels, aka hypercobalaminemia (HC),  is not rare among hospitalized patients with 1 study reporting “high” (813-1355 pg/ml) and “very high” (>1355 pg/ml) serum B12 levels in 13 and 7% of patients, respectively1.

Common causes include excess B12 intake, solid neoplasms (particularly, hepatocellular carcinoma and metastatic neoplastic liver disease), blood disorders (eg, myelodysplastic syndrome, CML, and acute leukemias, particularly AML3), and other liver diseases, including alcohol-related diseases as well as acute and chronic hepatitis.  Other inflammatory states and renal failure have also been reported2.  

Paradoxically, even in the presence of HC, a functional B12 deficiency may still exist. This may be related to poor B12 delivery to cells due to its high binding by transport proteins transcobalamin I and III in HC which may in turn cause a decrease in the binding of B12 to transcobalamin II, a key player in B12 transport to tissues2.  In this setting, elevated serum methylmalonic acid and homocysteine levels may be helpful.


  1. Arendt JFB, Nexo E. Cobalamin related parameters and disease patterns in patients with increased serum cobalamin levels. PLoS ONE 2012;9:e45979. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0045979
  2. Andres E, Serraj K, Zhu J. et al. The pathophysiology of elevated vitamin B12 in clinical practice. Q J Med 2013;106:505-515.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23447660
How should I interpret high serum vitamin B12 levels in my patient with anemia?