Ketoacidosis is a dangerous condition, where toxic levels of ketone bodies build up in the blood because the body is not producing insulin. Ketosis, on the other hand, results when the body has exhausted its stored glycogen and begins to burn fatty tissue for energy.
The process of ketosis is the basis of the many low-carb diets. In ketosis, the body does not have sufficient glucose or glycogen available to give cells what they need to create energy. The body then turns to fat cells as an energy source. Ketone bodies in the bloodstream are a natural product of this process.
These diets work, and ketosis is achieved, when carbohydrates are essentially eliminated from the diet. With minimal carbohydrate intake, there is little sugar to convert to glycogen. Without glycogen, the body breaks down and excretes fat cells, leaving ketones behind in the blood. In an ideal situation, this results in weight loss.
Ketones in the body can be toxic in high enough concentrations. The body often has small amounts of ketones in the bloodstream, including during the overnight period. This is a mild, natural reaction, with low levels of ketones (blood ketones at 1-3 millimolar) and a normal pH of 5, that reverses in the morning when the nightly fast is broken. Low levels of ketones in the bloodstream do not represent a danger to health.
Ketoacidosis occurs when blood sugar levels are high (meaning they are not being metabolized properly in the absence of insulin) and the body is experiencing dehydration. This means the normally small concentration of ketones in the bloodstream becomes much larger.
Ketoacidosis is a pathological condition where the body cannot control the level of ketones building up in the blood. The ketones are being excreted in the urine, but not fast enough to prevent the blood from becoming acidic. Acetone is the simplest ketone, so it is not uncommon that the breath of the patient smells like acetone, or has a "fruity" odor.
This increase in acidity of the blood causes significant damage to organs within the body. It is a serious condition that requires emergency treatment. Untreated ketoacidosis can be life-threatening.
Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) can develop quickly, often within 24 hours. Excessive thirst, frequent urination, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, weakness or fatigue, mental confusion and fruity-smelling breath are all symptoms. If these symptoms occur in conjunction with hyperglycemia and high levels of ketones in the urine (which may be tested with test strips available at the pharmacy), immediate medical attention should be sought.
Triggers for the development of Ketoacidosis might include illness (particularly one where there is a high fever and/or vomiting and diarrhea), failure to take insulin treatments in a timely manner, stress, heart attack, physical or emotional trauma or surgery. Alcohol or drug abuse - particularly cocaine - are also triggers.