Also Known As
C1, C1q, C2, C3, C4
CH50
CH100
Total Complement
Formal Name
Complement, Antigen, Functional or Activity
This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on December 7, 2017.
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

You may be able to find your test results on your laboratory's website or patient portal. However, you are currently at Lab Tests Online. You may have been directed here by your lab's website in order to provide you with background information about the test(s) you had performed. You will need to return to your lab's website or portal, or contact your healthcare practitioner in order to obtain your test results.

Lab Tests Online is an award-winning patient education website offering information on laboratory tests. The content on the site, which has been reviewed by laboratory scientists and other medical professionals, provides general explanations of what results might mean for each test listed on the site, such as what a high or low value might suggest to your healthcare practitioner about your health or medical condition.

The reference ranges for your tests can be found on your laboratory report. They are typically found to the right of your results.

If you do not have your lab report, consult your healthcare provider or the laboratory that performed the test(s) to obtain the reference range.

Laboratory test results are not meaningful by themselves. Their meaning comes from comparison to reference ranges. Reference ranges are the values expected for a healthy person. They are sometimes called "normal" values. By comparing your test results with reference values, you and your healthcare provider can see if any of your test results fall outside the range of expected values. Values that are outside expected ranges can provide clues to help identify possible conditions or diseases.

While accuracy of laboratory testing has significantly evolved over the past few decades, some lab-to-lab variability can occur due to differences in testing equipment, chemical reagents, and techniques. This is a reason why so few reference ranges are provided on this site. It is important to know that you must use the range supplied by the laboratory that performed your test to evaluate whether your results are "within normal limits."

For more information, please read the article Reference Ranges and What They Mean.

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.

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

No test preparation is needed.

Accordion Title
Common Questions
  • How is it used?

    Complement tests, most commonly C3 and C4, are used to determine whether deficiencies or abnormalities in the complement system are causing, or contributing to, a person's disease or condition. Total complement activity (CH50 or CH100) may be ordered to look at the integrity of the entire classical complement pathway. Other complement components are ordered as needed to look for deficiencies.

    Complement testing may be used to:

  • When is it ordered?

    Complement testing may be ordered when a person has unexplained inflammation or edema or symptoms of an autoimmune disorder such as SLE. It may also be ordered when a health practitioner suspects that someone may have an immune complex-related condition and wants to check the status of the person's complement system.

    Individual complement components may be ordered when the total complement activity (CH50, sometimes called CH100) is abnormal to help determine which of the components are deficient or abnormal. C3 and C4 levels are the most frequently ordered, but others, such as C1 inhibitor, may be ordered when other deficiencies are suspected. C3 and C4 are often ordered together as the relative levels are often important.

    When an acute or chronic condition has been diagnosed, complement testing may be used to help give a rough idea of the severity of the condition with the assumption that the severity is linked to the decrease in complement levels. Complement testing may also be ordered occasionally when a health practitioner wants to monitor the current activity of a condition.

  • What does the test result mean?

    Complement levels may be decreased due to increased consumption or, more rarely, a hereditary deficiency. Hereditary deficiency in one of the complement proteins will usually lead to a high frequency of recurrent microbial infections. Decreased complement levels also are associated with an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease. Both C3 and C4 levels are typically depressed in SLE while C3 alone is low in septicemia and infections caused by fungi or parasites such as malaria.

    If the deficiency is due to an underlying acute or chronic condition, complement levels will usually return to normal if the underlying condition can be resolved.

    Decreased complement activity may be seen with:

    Complement protein levels are usually increased, along with other unrelated proteins called acute phase reactants, during acute or chronic inflammation. These all usually return to normal when the underlying condition is resolved. However, complement proteins are rarely measured in these conditions, compared to the widely ordered C-reactive protein (CRP), and the relevance of their measurement in these situations is not reviewed here.

    Increased complement activity may also be seen with:

  • Is there anything else I should know?

    Increased and decreased complement levels will not tell a health practitioner what is wrong with a patient, but they can give an indication that the immune system is involved with a condition.

  • What are the other parts of the innate immune system?

    It includes:

View Sources

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.

Ask a Laboratory Scientist

 

Your questions will be answered by a laboratory scientist as part of a voluntary service provided by one of our partners, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS). Click on the Contact a Scientist button below to be re-directed to the ASCLS site to complete a request form. If your question relates to this web site and not to a specific lab test, please submit it via our Contact Us page instead. Thank you.

Contact a Scientist