The Test Sample
What is being tested?
17-hydroxyprogesterone (17-OHP) is a steroid hormone, derived from cholesterol, and is produced as part of the process of making the hormone cortisol. This test measures the amount of 17-OHP in the blood to detect and/or evaluate congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an inherited condition that results in decreased adrenal cortisol and aldosterone and increased male sex hormone (androgen) production.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. It helps break down protein, glucose, and lipids, maintains blood pressure, and regulates the immune system. The adrenal glands also produce other steroid hormones such as aldosterone, which helps regulate salt levels and blood pressure, and androgens, substances that, like testosterone, cause male sexual features as well as other effects.
Several enzymes are required to complete the steps involved in the production of cortisol. If one or more of these enzymes is deficient or dysfunctional, then inadequate amounts of cortisol are produced, as occurs with CAH. The most common cause of CAH is a lack of the enzyme 21-hydroxylase, accounting for about 90% of cases.
Because a low level of cortisol causes an elevation in the level of a particular pituitary hormone that stimulates adrenal growth and hormone production (adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH), the adrenal gland increases in size (adrenal hyperplasia). However, the increased size and activity cannot overcome the block in cortisol production. Other substances such as 17-hydroxyprogesterone and androgens that do not need the defective enzyme are produced in excess. This is why testing for 17-OHP can help to detect CAH.
CAH with 21-hydroxylase deficiency is inherited as either a severe or mild type:
- Severe forms can cause babies to be born with serious deficiencies of both aldosterone and cortisol that will require medical attention. This severe form is most often detected in infancy during routine newborn screening or during early childhood. If not detected by screening, it may present in early childhood with signs and symptoms such as vomiting, listlessness, lack of energy (lethargy), not eating well, failure to thrive, dehydration and low blood pressure, particularly with acute illness.
Due to the excess androgens, the development of male sexual characteristics in females (virilization) can occur. Female babies may have sex organs that are not clearly male or female (ambiguous genitalia), making it difficult to initially determine their sex. Females may have excess hair growth on face and body (hirsutism) and other male secondary sexual characteristics during childhood and adolescence as well as irregular menstruation. Males with this condition will appear normal at birth but may start to develop sexual characteristics prematurely.
- In the milder, yet more common form of CAH due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency, there may be only partial deficiency of the enzyme. This type, sometimes called late-onset or non-classical CAH, can have symptoms that begin to appear any time during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. The symptoms can be vague, may develop slowly over time, and may vary from person to person. Though this form of CAH is not life-threatening, it may cause problems with growth, development, and puberty in children and may lead to infertility in adults.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm or by pricking the heel of an infant.
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, but an early morning collection may be requested. It may also be requested that the blood sample be collected at a specific time during a woman's menstrual cycle.