Hypoalbuminemia results from having low levels of the protein albumin. Certain severe conditions, such as liver or heart failure, or severe illnesses may contribute.

Hypoalbuminemia happens when you don’t have enough of the protein albumin in your bloodstream.

Albumin is a protein made in your liver. It’s an important protein in the plasma of your blood. Depending on your age, your body typically contains 35 to 50 grams per liter (g/L) of albumin. Albumin is created in the liver and passes into the bloodstream at the rate of about 10 to 15 grams per day.

Without enough albumin, your body can’t keep fluid from leaking out of your blood vessels.

Not having enough albumin can make it harder to move important substances throughout your body. Some of these substances are used for essential processes to keep your body fluids in check.

Hypoalbuminemia tends to happen in people hospitalized with a critical illness.

Read on to learn more about recognizing hypoalbuminemia and what to do about it.

Organ systems throughout your body use albumin, and your symptoms may not make this condition immediately apparent.

Common symptoms can include:

  • edema (buildup of fluid) in your legs or face
  • skin that’s rougher or drier than typical
  • hair thinning
  • jaundice (skin that looks yellow)
  • difficulty breathing
  • feeling weak or exhausted
  • irregular heartbeat
  • abnormal weight gain
  • not having much of an appetite
  • diarrhea
  • feeling nauseous
  • vomiting

Your symptoms depend on what’s causing the condition. For example, if your hypoalbuminemia is the result of a serious burn, you may notice some of these symptoms right away. But if a nutritional deficiency causes a decrease in albumin, your symptoms may gradually develop over time.

See a doctor if you begin to feel exhausted or have trouble breathing without warning. This can be a sign of serious health conditions, including hypoalbuminemia.

Hypoalbuminemia can also stunt a child’s growth. If you notice your child isn’t growing at a rate typical for their age, talk with your doctor about whether they should test your child for hypoalbuminemia.

Inflammation throughout your body often causes hypoalbuminemia, such as if you have sepsis or recently had surgery.

The inflammation can also come from exposure to medical interventions, such as being placed on a ventilator or bypass machine. This condition is referred to as capillary leak or third spacing.

Hypoalbuminemia can happen in combination with insufficient protein or calories in your diet.

Other common causes of hypoalbuminemia include:

  • getting a serious burn
  • not being able to properly absorb nutrients in your stomach
  • having a vitamin deficiency
  • malnutrition and not eating a well-balanced diet
  • receiving intravenous (IV) fluids while you’re in the hospital after surgery

Other conditions can also cause hypoalbuminia, including:

  • diabetes, which keeps your body from making enough insulin
  • hyperthyroidism, which causes your thyroid gland to make too much of a hormone
  • heart conditions, including heart failure
  • lupus, a condition in which your immune system attacks your body
  • cirrhosis, a condition caused by extensive liver damage
  • nephrotic syndrome, a kidney condition that causes you to pass a lot of protein when you urinate
  • sepsis, which happens when your body damages itself as your immune system fights off an infection
  • certain types of cancer
  • cardiac failure
  • critical illness

Hypoalbuminemia is also considered a risk factor for some conditions. Developing it while you have certain underlying conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, can put you at risk of developing additional complications.

Doctors diagnose hypoalbuminemia by measuring your blood and urine albumin levels. They can use tests that include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): A doctor tests your albumin levels every time you get a CBC panel. The most common test done to measure albumin is the serum albumin test. This test uses a blood sample to analyze your albumin levels in a laboratory.
  • Microalbuminuria test: A doctor can also measure how much albumin you’re passing in your urine with a microalbuminuria test. This test is also sometimes called the albumin-to-creatinine (ACR) test. If you’re passing too much albumin in your urine, your kidneys may be damaged. Kidney damage can cause albumin to leak into your urine.
  • C-reactive protein blood test: The CRP blood test can tell your doctor how much inflammation is happening in your body. Inflammation is one of the most important indicators of hypoalbuminemia.

Doctors treat hypoalbuminemia by raising your albumin levels back to their typical levels. Treatment may vary if a specific condition is causing hypoalbuminemia.

Medications that suppress your immune system can also help keep inflammation from lowering your albumin levels. A doctor may recommend corticosteroid medications or injections. They may treat the underlying condition causing inflammation.

If you have a kidney condition, blood pressure medications can help keep you from passing albumin out through your urine. This can reduce your symptoms. Common medications include captopril (Capoten) and benazepril (Lotensin).

A doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes that may include:

  • Diet changes: A doctor may recommend changing your diet if a nutritional deficiency is causing your condition. Foods with a lot of protein, including nuts, eggs, and dairy products, may be beneficial in raising your albumin levels.
  • Avoiding alcohol: If you drink alcohol, a doctor may recommend drinking less or stopping drinking. Drinking alcohol can lower your blood protein levels and cause inflammation, worsening symptoms.
  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke: Smoking cigarettes can contribute to system-wide inflammation, which may contribute to hypoalbuminemia.

Hypoalbuminemia can increase your risk of developing other conditions. These may include:

  • pneumonia
  • pleural effusion, which happens when fluid builds up around your lungs
  • ascites, which happens when fluid builds up in your abdominal area
  • atrophy, or a significant weakening of the muscles

Hypoalbuminemia can be especially problematic if it’s found after surgery or after you’re admitted to the emergency room. Untreated hypoalbuminemia can significantly heighten your risk of fatal injuries or conditions.

If left untreated, hypoalbuminemia can lead to serious complications. Conditions that lower your albumin levels need treatment as soon as possible to maintain your overall health.

Doctors can treat it by raising your albumin levels or treating the underlying cause of your hypoalbuminemia.

A doctor may recommend changes to diet or a specific medication.

Hypoalbuminemia occurs when you have low levels of albumin, a protein in the blood. It helps your body transport fluids throughout your body.

It may occur if you have liver failure, heart failure, or a severe illness. Malnutrition can also lower the levels of albumin in your body.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause but may include medications to reduce inflammation.