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

Albumin is a protein that’s made in your liver. It’s an important protein in the plasma of your blood. Depending on your age, your body needs anywhere between 3.5 and 5.9 grams per deciliter (g/dL). Without enough albumin, your body can’t keep fluid from leaking out of your blood vessels.

Not having enough albumin can also 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.

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

Albumin is used throughout your body, and your symptoms may not make this condition immediately apparent.

Common symptoms include:

  • edema (buildup of fluid) in your legs or face
  • skin that’s rougher or drier than normal
  • 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 caused by a poor diet, your symptoms may gradually develop over time. If your hypoalbuminemia is the result of a serious burn, you may notice some of these symptoms right away.

See your doctor if you begin to feel exhausted or have trouble breathing without warning. Hypoalbuminemia can also stunt a child’s growth. If you notice that your child isn’t growing at a rate normal for their age, talk to your doctor about whether they should test your child for hypoalbuminemia.

Hypoalbuminemia is often caused by having inflammation throughout your body, 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 usually happens in combination with not getting enough protein or calories in your diet.

Other common causes of hypoalbuminemia include:

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

It can also be caused by other conditions, 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

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.

Your doctor tests your albumin levels every time you get a full blood test. The most common test done to measure albumin is the serum albumin test. This test uses a blood sample to analyze your levels of albumin in a laboratory.

Your doctor can also measure how much albumin you’re passing in your urine. To do this, they use a test called the 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.

The C-reactive protein (CRP) blood test is especially useful for diagnosing hypoalbuminemia. The CRP test can tell your doctor how much inflammation is happening in your body. Inflammation is one of the most important indicators of hypoalbuminemia.

You can often treat hypoalbuminemia by raising your albumin levels back to normal. Treatment may vary if a specific condition is causing your hypoalbuminemia.

Your doctor will recommend that you change your diet if a lack of nutrition is causing your condition. Foods with a lot of protein, including nuts, eggs, and dairy products, are all good choices to raise your albumin levels.

If you drink alcohol, your doctor may recommend that you drink less or stop drinking. Drinking alcohol can lower your blood protein levels and make your symptoms worse.

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).

Medications used to suppress your immune system can also help keep inflammation from lowering your albumin levels. Your doctor may recommend corticosteroid medications or injections.

Hypoalbuminemia can you put you at risk of developing other conditions, including:

  • pneumonia
  • pleural effusion, which happens when fluid builds up around your lungs
  • ascites, which happens when fluid builds up in your abdominal area
  • atrophy, which is 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 in these cases.

If left untreated, hypoalbuminemia can lead to serious complications. Any conditions causing your albumin levels to drop need to be treated as soon as possible to maintain your overall health.

It can be treated by addressing the underlying condition or by getting your albumin levels back to normal. This is possible through lifestyle changes or medication. For example, if your diet is causing the condition, eating more protein-rich foods may help get your albumin levels back to normal.