Methemoglobin (English: methaemoglobin) (pronounced "met-hemoglobin") is a form of the oxygen-carrying metalloprotein hemoglobin, in which the iron in the heme group is in the Fe3+ (ferric) state, not the Fe2+ (ferrous) of normal hemoglobin. Methemoglobin cannot bind oxygen, unlike oxyhemoglobin. It is bluish chocolate-brown in color. In human blood a trace amount of methemoglobin is normally produced spontaneously, but when present in excess the blood becomes abnormally dark bluish brown. The NADH-dependent enzyme methemoglobin reductase (diaphorase I) is responsible for converting methemoglobin back to hemoglobin.
Normally one to two percent of a person's hemoglobin is methemoglobin; a higher percentage than this can be genetic or caused by exposure to various chemicals and depending on the level can cause health problems known as methemoglobinemia. A higher level of methemoglobin will tend to cause a pulse oximeter to read closer to 85% regardless of the true level of oxygen saturation.
Common causes of elevated methemoglobin
- Reduced cellular defense mechanisms
- Various pharmaceutical compounds
- Environmental agents
- Inherited disorders
- Some family members of the Fughate family in Kentucky, due to a recessive gene, had blue skin from an excess of methemoglobin.
- In cats
Amyl nitrite is administered to treat cyanide poisoning. It works by converting hemoglobin to methemoglobin, which allows for the binding of cyanide and the formation of cyanomethemoglobin. The immediate goal of forming this cyanide adduct is to prevent the binding of free cyanide to the cytochrome a3 group in cytochrome c oxidase.
Methemoglobin saturation is expressed as the percentage of hemoglobin in the methemoglobin state; That is MetHb as a proportion of Hb.
- 1-2% Normal
- Less than 10% metHb - No symptoms
- 10-20% metHb - Skin discoloration only (most notably on mucous membranes)
- 20-30% metHb - Anxiety, headache, dyspnea on exertion
- 30-50% metHb - Fatigue, confusion, dizziness, tachypnea, palpitations
- 50-70% metHb - Coma, seizures, arrhythmias, acidosis
- Greater than 70% metHb - Death
Increased levels of methemoglobin are found in blood stains. Upon exiting the body, bloodstains transit from bright red to dark brown, which is attributed to oxidation of oxy-hemoglobin (HbO2) to methemoglobin (met-Hb) and hemichrome (HC).
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- Vale, J. A. (2001). "Cyanide Antidotes: from Amyl Nitrite to Hydroxocobalamin - Which Antidote is Best?". Toxicology. 168 (1): 37–38.
- Bremmer et al PloS One 2011 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0021845