hCG Levels and Miscarriage

HCG Blood Test to Help Diagnose a Pregnancy Loss

pregnant woman having blood drawn
How are hCG levels used to diagnose a miscarriage?. ADAM GAULT/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Your doctor may use your hCG levels to diagnose whether you're having a miscarriage. What do the numbers of this blood test mean? What does it mean if serial measurements are falling or if they fail to double? What other tests may be done?

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) and Pregnancy

Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is a hormone produced in the body during pregnancy. An hCG blood test measures the level of hCG detectable in the blood.

The tests can be qualitative (returning a yes/no answer about whether the woman has hCG in her blood) or quantitative (returning a measurement of the amount of hCG in the blood).

Why Doctors Order hCG Blood Tests

Some doctors test hCG levels in early pregnancy as a routine part of prenatal care for all women. Most often, however, urine-based hCG tests are used to confirm pregnancy.

Physicians usually order a quantitative hCG blood test only when they need more information about what is going on in a particular patient’s pregnancy. This may occur if a woman has vaginal bleeding, miscarriage symptoms, or a medical history or pain which could mean an ectopic pregnancy.

Serial hCG Blood Tests and hCG Doubling Time

A single hCG test may be done to see if your levels are in the normal range of hCG for a specific point in pregnancy.

Often, instead, serial hCG measurements are done to look at hCG doubling times.

This gives your doctor an idea of whether or not your pregnancy is progressing as it should. With serial hCG measurements, quantitative hCG blood tests are drawn two to three days apart. Ordinarily, the hCG level in your blood doubles every two to three days (at least in early pregnancy before six to seven weeks.)

If your hCG doubling time is slower than expected, or if it decreases over time, this may be a sign of a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. Keep in mind that in roughly 15 percent of pregnancies, the hCG doubling time is slower than expected, and an abnormally slow increase does not necessarily mean there is a problem with your pregnancy.

If you are having hCG levels checked because of miscarriage symptoms in early pregnancy, your doctor will most likely need you to have serial blood tests rather than a single hCG level.

When Do hCG Levels Stop Doubling?

It's important to note that hCG doubling time can be an important tool in early pregnancy, but as pregnancy progresses, doubling time slows down. By six to seven weeks gestation (or when your level passes 1,200 mIU/ml) doubling time decreases to roughly every three days, and after the level reaches around 6,000 mIU/ml, doubling time occurs every four days. By the time you reach eight to eleven weeks, your hCG level will have reached its peak.

While hCG doubling times become less reliable later in first trimester, other tools such as transvaginal ultrasound become more important in deciding the status of your pregnancy.

hCG Levels and Miscarriage

Your doctor is the best person to tell you what your hCG levels mean, because normal hCG levels vary significantly from person to person, and single hCG levels (even single low hCG levels) do not give much information on how a pregnancy is progressing.

Your doctor can compare the information from your hCG results to other information in your medical history, such as whether or not you are having miscarriage symptoms and the results of an early ultrasound in order to make a diagnosis.

In general, however, if the hCG levels are dropping in the first trimester, this probably a sign of impending miscarriage. On the other hand, slow-rising hCG levels that do not double every two or three days in early pregnancy can be a sign of problems but can also occur a normal pregnancy.

Finally, it's important to understand that hCG levels may persist for up to a few weeks after a miscarriage.

In other words, you may continue to have a positive urine or quantitative hCG level even after a miscarriage has occurred.

hCG Levels and Ectopic Pregnancy

Slow-rising quantitative hCG levels, at least in early pregnancy, may be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy. Since a ruptured ectopic pregnancy can be dangerous, your doctor may recommend a transvaginal ultrasound to look for signs of an ectopic pregnancy. If your hCG level is at least 1,500 to 2,000 mIU/ml and a gestational sac is not visualized on early ultrasound, an ectopic pregnancy may be present. Since women may not have any symptoms prior to rupture, carefully following any recommendations about repeat hCG levels and ultrasound examinations is important. Learn more about using ultrasound to diagnose a tubal pregnancy.

What Other Tests May be Done to Determine if You are Miscarrying?

In addition to monitoring your hCG levels, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound, both to help determine if you may have had a miscarriage and to make sure you don't have an ectopic pregnancy. Learn more about ultrasound for diagnosing miscarriage and ruling out ectopic pregnancy.

How to Prepare for an hCG Blood Test

An hCG blood test does not require any special preparation or planning, and you do not have to fast before having your blood drawn. The results should not be affected by the time of day you get your blood drawn or the amount of water you drink before the test. That's a benefit of an hCG blood test over an hCG urine test, which is affected by the concentration of your urine.

Bottom Line and Summary of hCG Levels and Miscarriage

Monitoring quantitative hCG levels can provide helpful information to assess whether you are miscarrying, or have other pregnancy complications such as an ectopic pregnancy. Since hCG levels vary from person to person, however, serial levels a few days apart give a better idea of the status of your pregnancy. hCG levels are used along with other information, such as any any history of pregnancy problems in the past, any physical symptoms you are experiencing, and often the results of an early ultrasound.

While you are having your hCG levels monitored you may be feeling very anxious. In coping with this uncertainty many women don't know if they should be excited about pregnancy or grieving a miscarriage. Knowing how difficult this uncertainty can be, ask your doctor questions. Ask her when she can know for sure what is happening. Ask about what will happen if your levels change or don't change as would be expected. Being aware of the next steps that may taken can sometimes help you cope just a little better with the waiting game of uncertainty.

Sources:

Cunningham. Williams Obstetrics. McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.

Seeber, B. What Serial hCG Can Tell You, and Cannot Tell You, About an Early Pregnancy. Fertility and Sterility. 2012. 98(5):1074-7.

Visconti, K., and N. Zite. hCG in Ectopic Pregnancy. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2012. 55(2):410-7.

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