Why is my patient with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and hypovolemia hypertensive?

Although we may expect patients with DKA to present with hypotension due to hypovolemia, many patients with DKA may actually be hypertensive. This finding is particularly intriguing because hyperinsulinemia, not insulinopenia as found in DKA, has been associated with hypertension. 1,2

Though not proven, potential explanations for hypertension in DKA include elevated serum levels of catecholamines, pro-inflammatory cytokines, renin, angiotension II and aldosterone.3-5 Hyperosmolality may also lead to the release of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) which increases blood pressure via V2 receptors.  Another possibility is that the high insulin levels associated with the treatment of DKA suppress the catecholamine-stimulated production of vasodilative eicosanoids (eg, prostaglandins) by adipose tissue. 1 It’s possible that in any given patient, 1 or more of these mechanisms may be enough to override the potential hypotensive effect of insulin deficiency in DKA.

We should note that reports of frequent hypertension in DKA have primarily involved pediatric patients. A 2011 study found that 82% of pediatric patients with DKA had hypertension during the first 6 hours of admission with no patient having hypotension.3  

On the other extreme, refractory hypotension without obvious cause (eg, sepsis, acute adrenal insufficiency, cardiogenic causes) has also been reported in DKA.5Because insulin inhibits the production of vasodilative prostaglandins (eg, PGI2 and PGE2), severe insulin deficiency in DKA can also contribute to hypotension along with volume depletion. 

Potential genetic polymorphism in the synthesis and metabolism of prostaglandins may at least partially explain the varied blood pressure response and whether a patient with DKA presents with hypertension or hypotension. 5  

The author would like to acknowledge the valuable contribution of Lloyd Axelrod MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, to this post.

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  1. Axelrod L. Insulin, prostaglandins, and the pathogenesis of hypertension. Diabetes 1991;40:1223-1227. https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/40/10/1223 
  2. Chatzipantelli K, Head C, Megerman J, et al. The relationship between plasma insulin level, prostaglandin productin by adipose tissue and blood pressure in normal rats and rats with diabetes mellitus and diabetic ketoacidosis. Metabolism 1996;45:691-98. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S002604959690133X 
  3. Deeter KH, Roberts JS, Bradford H, et al. Hypertension despite dehydration during severe pediatric diabetic ketoacidosis. Pediatr Diabetes 2011;12:295-301. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1399-5448.2010.00695.x 
  4. Ferris JB, O’Hare JA, Kelleher CM, et al. Diabetic control and the renin-angiotensin system, catecholamines and blood pressure. Hypertension 1985 7(Suppl II):II-58-II-63. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/01.HYP.7.6_Pt_2.II58  
  5. Singh D, Cantu M, Marx MHM, et al. Diabetic ketoacidosis and fluid refractory hypotension. Clin Pediatrics 2016;55:182-84. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0009922815584549?journalCode=cpja 


Why is my patient with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and hypovolemia hypertensive?

My patient is admitted with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and is testing positive for cocaine. Can cocaine cause DKA?

Cocaine use has been generally linked to DKA but whether it’s through its antagonizing effect on insulin action or more indirectly through its association with non-compliance with insulin, or both, is not totally clear.

A retrospective study found cocaine users to account for 14% of all DKA admissions.1 Cocaine users were also less likely than controls to have an intercurrent illness identified as a precipitant for DKA, and more likely to have missed taking insulin prior to admission. Another study also reported active cocaine use to be associated with DKA, but found its effect to be independent of non-compliance. 2

Yet another retrospective study limited to patients admitted with hyperglycemia, found no significant association between active cocaine use and development of hyperglycemic crisis.

There are reasons to believe that cocaine may contribute to DKA. Cocaine has been proposed as a possible precipitant of DKA due to its ability to potentially enhance counterregulatory mechanisms designed to antagonize the effect of insulin by increasing catecholamine and cortisol levels. 1,3

So next time you have a patient with DKA, consider cocaine as a possible precipitant, particularly when the cause of DKA is unclear.



  1. Warner EA, Greene GS, Buchsbaum MS et al. Diabetic ketoacidosis associated with cocaine use. Arch Intern Med 1998; 158:1799-802. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9738609
  2. Nyenwe E, Loganathan R, Blum S, et al. Active use of cocaine: An independent risk factor for recurrent diabetic ketoacidosis in a city hospital. Endocr Pract 2007;13:22-29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17360297
  3. Modzelewski KL, Rybin DV, Weinberg JM, et al. Active cocaine use does not increase the likelihood of hyperglycemic crisis. J Clin Transl Endocrinol 2017;9:1-7 http://www.jctejournal.com/article/S2214-6237(16)30056-4/pdf


Contributed in part by Quin L Sievers, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School

My patient is admitted with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and is testing positive for cocaine. Can cocaine cause DKA?