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Complement

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Also known as: C1; C1q; C2; C3; C4; CH50; CH100 (among others)
Formal name: Complement Activity; Complement Component; Total Complement; Total Hemolytic Complement Activity

At a Glance

Why Get Tested?

To determine whether deficiencies or abnormalities in complement system proteins are contributing to increased infections or increased autoimmune activity; to help monitor the activity and treatment of autoimmune diseases and immune complex-related diseases

When to Get Tested?

When you have recurrent microbial (usually bacterial) infections, unexplained inflammation or edema, or symptoms related to an autoimmune disorder; periodically to help monitor a known acute or chronic condition that affects the complement system

Sample Required?

A blood sample drawn from a vein in your arm

Test Preparation Needed?

None

The Test Sample

What is being tested?

The complement system is complex and composed of a set of more than 30 circulating blood proteins that work together to promote immune and inflammatory responses. Its principal role is to destroy foreign pathogens like bacteria and viruses. The complement system can also be activated when the body makes antibodies against its own tissues that it thinks are foreign (autoantibodies) as happens in autoimmune diseases. Complement tests measure the quantity or activity of complement proteins in the blood.

The complement system is part of the body's innate immune system. Unlike the acquired immune system, which produces antibodies that target and protect against specific threats, the innate immune system is non-specific and can quickly respond to foreign substances. It does not require previous exposure to an invading microorganism or substance and does not maintain a memory of previous encounters.

There are nine primary complement proteins that are designated C1 through C9. These components, in addition to the remaining proteins, work together in a cascade manner by activating, amplifying, breaking apart, and forming complexes that respond to infections, non-self tissues (transplants), dead cells (apoptosis), or inflammation.

Complement activation may be initiated in several different ways. These are termed classical, alternative or lectin pathways. However, the final product from all activation pathways is the same – the formation of the membrane attack complex (MAC). Complement activation causes several things to happen ("complement cascade"):

  • The MAC binds to the surface of each microorganism or abnormal cell that has been targeted for destruction. It creates a lesion (hole) in the membrane wall and causes lysis, which is destruction of the cell by letting the contents out – like piercing a water-filled balloon.
  • It increases the permeability of blood vessels, allowing infection-fighting white blood cells (WBCs) to move out of the bloodstream and into the tissues.
  • It attracts WBCs to the site of the infection.
  • It stimulates phagocytosis, a process in which microorganisms are engulfed by macrophages and neutrophils and killed.
  • It increases the solubility of the immune complexes and helps to clear them out of the blood.

Complement tests measure the quantity or the function (activity) of complement proteins in the blood. Complement components may be measured individually or together to determine whether the system is functioning normally. C3 and C4 are the most frequently measured complement proteins. Total complement activity (CH50 or CH100) can be measured if a health practitioner suspects a deficiency that is not measured by C3 or C4. CH50 measures the function of the complete classical complement pathway, C1 – C9. If this measurement is outside the normal range, then each of the nine different complement levels can be measured individually to look for hereditary or acquired deficiencies.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

No test preparation is needed.

The Test

Common Questions

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Article Sources

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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used.

Sources Used in Current Review

MedlinePlus Medical Encylopedia. Complement. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003456.htm. Accessed March 2014.

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Complement component 3 (C3). Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003539.htm. Accessed March 2014.

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Complement component 4. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003354.htm. Accessed March 2014.

ARUP Consult. Complement Deficiency. Available online at http://www.arupconsult.com/Topics/ComplementDeficiency.html#tabs=0 through http://www.arupconsult.com. Accessed March 2014.

National Jewish Health Complement Laboratory. Complement: The Immune System's Most Aggressive Mechanism Against Infection. Available online at http://www.nationaljewish.org/professionals/clinical-services/diagnostics/adx/about-us/lab-expertise/complement/ through http://www.nationaljewish.org. Accessed March 2014.

University of Rochester Medical Center. Complement C3 (Blood). Available online at http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspxContentTypeID=167&ContentID=complement_c3_blood through http://www.urmc.rochester.edu. Accessed March 2014.

Healthline. Complement Test. Written by Ann Peitrangelo. Published on June 4, 2012. Available online at http://www.healthline.com/health/complement#Overview through http://www.healthline.com. Accessed March 2014.

Glovsky MM, Ward PW, Johnson KJ. Complement determinations in human disease. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2004; 93:513-523.

Speth C, Prodinger WM, Wurzner R, et al. Complement. Chapter 33 in Fundamental Immunology. William E Paul. Philadelphia:Lippincott-Williams-Wilkins. 2008, Pg 1048.

Sources Used in Previous Reviews

Thomas, Clayton L., Editor (1997). Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia, PA [18th Edition].

Pagana, Kathleen D. & Pagana, Timothy J. (2001). Mosby's Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference 5th Edition: Mosby, Inc., Saint Louis, MO.

Biology of the Immune System. The Merck Manual of Medical Information--Home Edition, Section 16. Immune Disorders, Chapter 167 [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.merck.com/mrkshared/mmanual_home/sec16/167.jsp through http://www.merck.com.

The Complement System. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, Section 12, Immunology; Allergic Disorders, Chapter 146. Biology Of The Immune System [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.merck.com/pubs/mmanual/section12/chapter146/146d.htm through http://www.merck.com.

Kovacs, B. (2001 November 17). Complement. MEDLINEplus Health Information, Medical Encyclopedia [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003456.htm.

Kovacs, B. (2001 October 6, Updated). C4 level. MEDLINEplus Health Information, Medical Encyclopedia [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003354.htm.

Kovacs, B. (2001 November 17, Updated). Complement component 3 (C3). MEDLINEplus Health Information, Medical Encyclopedia [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003539.htm.

(1999 January 29, Updated). How Does the Immune System Work? [13 paragraphs]. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.niaid.nih.gov/publications/autoimmune/work.htm through http://www.niaid.nih.gov.

ARUP's Guide to Clinical Laboratory Testing (CLT) [On-line information].
Complement Activity Enzyme Immunoassay, Total.
Complement Component 2.
Complement Component 3.
Complement Component 4.
Complement Component 5.
Complement Factor B.

Pagana, Kathleen D. & Pagana, Timothy J. (© 2007). Mosby's Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference 8th Edition: Mosby, Inc., Saint Louis, MO. Pp 288-289.

Peng, S. (2005 April 20, Updated). Complement component 3 (C3). MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003539.htm. Accessed on 4/10/07.

Peng, S. (2005 April 20, Updated). Complement. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003456.htm. Accessed on 4/10/07.

Liszewski, M. K, et. al. (2002 June 7). Innate Immunity: The Complement System. Medscape from ACP Medicine Online [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/534974 through http://www.medscape.com. Accessed on 4/10/07.

(© 2007). Complement Disorders - Complement Activity. ARUP Consult [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.arupconsult.com/Topics/Infectious_Disease/Chronic/Complement_Activity.html through http://www.arupconsult.com. Accessed on 4/10/07.

Tietz Textbook of Clinical Chemistry and Molecular Diagnostics. 4th ed. Burtis CA, Ashwood ER, Bruns, D eds. St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders; 2006.

Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 21st ed. McPherson R, Pincus, M, eds. Saunders Elsevier: 2007.

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 16th edition Kasper, Braunwald, Fauci, Hauser, Long, Jameson, eds. McGraw-Hill: 2005.

Borigini, M. and Zieve, D. (Updated 2009 February 3). Complement. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003456.htm. Accessed September 2010.

(© 1995-2010). Unit Code 8174: Complement C3, Serum. Mayo Clinic Mayo Medical Laboratories [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.mayomedicallaboratories.com/test-catalog/Overview/8174 through http://www.mayomedicallaboratories.com. Accessed September 2010.

Delgado, J. et. al. (Updated 2010 June). Complement Deficiency. ARUP Consult [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.arupconsult.com/Topics/ComplementDeficiency.html?client_ID=LTD through http://www.arupconsult.com. Accessed September 2010.

Chaganti, R. K. and Schwartz, R. (Updated 2009 July 9). Complement Deficiencies. eMedicine [On-line information]. Available online at http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/135478-overview through http://emedicine.medscape.com. Accessed September 2010.

Delves, P. (Revised 2008 September). Complement System. Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals [On-line information]. Available online at http://www.merck.com/mmpe/sec13/ch163/ch163d.html?qt=complement&alt=sh through http://www.merck.com. Accessed September 2010.

Gupta, R. et. al. (Updated 2009 April 21). Complement-Related Disorders. eMedicine [On-line information]. Available online at http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/136368-overview through http://emedicine.medscape.com. Accessed September 2010.

Pagana, K. D. & Pagana, T. J. (© 2007). Mosby's Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference 8th Edition: Mosby, Inc., Saint Louis, MO. Pp 288-289.

Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 21st ed. McPherson R, Pincus M, eds. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier: 2007, Pp 850, 855-861.

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