Thyroid function tests are used in the initial evaluation of thyroid disease. Thyroid function immunoassays, including many thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH, or thyrotropin), thyroxine (T4), and triiodothyronine (T3) tests, are subject to a number of sources of interference that may impact test results. Sources of interference include antibodies (eg, antiruthenium antibodies), biotin supplements, and other substances. Identification of interference is important to avoid inappropriate treatment and management.
Quick Answers for Clinicians
Due to a lack of standardization, the results of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), thyroxine (T4), and triiodothyronine (T3) tests are subject to variation based on the method, assay platform, and protocol used. Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) with equilibrium dialysis or ultrafiltration is considered the gold standard for measuring free thyroid hormones (free T3 and free T4), but modern immunoassay results often correlate well with this technique and are more readily available and cost-effective. Due to method-related bias, however, method-specific reference intervals are recommended. It is important to note that immunoassays may be subject to a variety of interferences (see the Common Sources of Interference with Thyroid Function Tests section).
Many commonly used thyroid function immunoassays make use of biotin-streptavidin technology. High biotin intake, such as from biotin supplements, may interfere with these assays and lead to inaccurate test results. Whether biotin interferes and what type of interference is expected depends on the design of the assay and will vary by laboratory. For more information, see the ARUP Laboratories Biotin Interference page and Common Sources of Interference with Thyroid Function Tests section.
In addition to biotin, thyroid function immunoassays are subject to interference from macro thyroid stimulating hormone (macro-TSH), antistreptavidin antibodies, antiruthenium antibodies, thyroid hormone autoantibodies, and heterophilic antibodies, among other sources of interference. Such interference should be suspected when results from a thyroid function test do not match previous results from the same test, other test results, or clinical presentation. The appropriate approach to the detection and correction of interference depends on the type of interference suspected. For more information, see the Common Sources of Interference with Thyroid Function Tests section.
Common Sources of Interference With Thyroid Function Tests
Thyroid function testing often relies on immunoassays and is therefore susceptible to a number of sources of interference. Six major causes of interference, including biotin, macro thyroid stimulating hormone (macro-TSH), antistreptavidin antibodies, antiruthenium antibodies, thyroid hormone autoantibodies, and heterophilic antibodies, may have a particularly large impact. Additional sources of interference include thyroid hormone transport protein variants, TSH variants, and paraprotein.
Communication between clinicians, laboratorians, and assay manufacturers is required to avoid the potential negative consequences of interference. Interference should be suspected when test values do not match previous test values, other laboratory test parameters, or clinical presentation. Interference is commonly detected by repeating the assay using a different method, performing dilutions, adding a blocking agent, or removing interfering antibodies.
Normal dietary biotin intake does not typically interfere with biotin-streptavidin-based immunoassays for TSH, T3, and T4. However, high biotin intake, such as from dietary supplements for hair, skin, and nails, may lead to falsely low TSH or falsely high T3 or T4 test results. Multiple factors may impact the extent of interference, including the specific immunoassay platform used, the type of assay (sandwich or competitive), the volume of the sample, and the protocol used.
The recommended method for identifying suspected biotin interference is to ask the patient about biotin supplementation. Patients should consult with their healthcare providers, and, if medically indicated, stop taking high-dose biotin supplements and repeat testing after 2 or more days. It should be noted that the length of time required for excess biotin to clear the body remains unknown. If the patient does not report taking supplements, but suspicion remains, testing for biotin interference may be useful. For more information, see the ARUP Laboratories Biotin Interference page.
Macro Thyroid Stimulating Hormone
Macro-TSH is a large form of TSH that results from the formation of complexes with serum proteins, including immunoglobulin. This form of TSH is not considered biologically active. Macro-TSH is detected by all current immunoassays, but because it cannot be routinely distinguished from active TSH, it can lead to falsely elevated TSH test results. Macro-TSH elevation should be suspected in asymptomatic individuals with markedly elevated TSH concentrations in isolation. Communication with the testing laboratory may be useful to determine possible testing strategies for macro-TSH.
Antistreptavidin antibodies may interfere with immunoassays that make use of biotin-streptavidin technology, which may lead to falsely elevated T3 and T4 and falsely low TSH test results. Antistreptavidin antibodies may also interfere with anti-TSH receptor tests, which may lead to an erroneous diagnosis of Graves disease.
Ruthenium may be used as a label in some TSH, T3, and T4 immunoassays. Antibodies against ruthenium may lead to low or elevated concentrations in any of these tests. The possibility of interference will depend on the testing method and assay design used. Consultation with the testing laboratory may be useful to determine if antiruthenium antibodies are a potential source of interference.
Thyroid Hormone Autoantibodies
Autoantibodies against T3 and T4 may interfere with thyroid hormone immunoassays and lead to falsely elevated test results. These autoantibodies are most prevalent in patients with autoimmune conditions. Screening for thyroid hormone autoantibodies in patients with autoimmune conditions is recommended if interference is suspected.
Antibodies that bind to components used in thyroid function immunoassays (these are referred to as heterophilic antibodies and include human antianimal antibodies) may lead to incorrect test results. Falsely elevated results are particularly likely. In addition to affecting tests in adult patients, heterophilic antibodies may cross the placenta and interfere with tests in newborns. Repeat testing with the inclusion of heterophilic blocking reagent may be useful. The testing laboratory should be contacted if heterophilic antibody interference is suspected.
ARUP Laboratory Tests
Preferred initial test to assess thyroid function
Quantitative Electrochemiluminescent Immunoassay
Initial test to assess thyroid function; does not include reflex to T4
Follow-up test for abnormal TSH result
Not recommended for routine thyroid screening; less sensitive and specific than free T4 testing
Not recommended for routine thyroid screening; useful in rare cases of suppressed serum TSH with normal free T4
Not recommended for routine evaluation of thyroid disorders; order free T4 immunoassay instead
Quantitative Equilibrium Dialysis/High Performance Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry
Not recommended for routine evaluation of thyroid disorders; order free T3 immunoassay instead
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U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Update: the FDA warns that biotin may interfere with lab tests: FDA safety communication. [Last Update: Nov 2019; Accessed: Nov 2020]
Bahn RS, Burch HB, Cooper DS, et al. Hyperthyroidism and other causes of thyrotoxicosis: management guidelines of the American Thyroid Association and American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Endocr Pract. 2011;17(3):456-520.
Garber JR, Cobin RH, Gharib H, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for hypothyroidism in adults: cosponsored by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American Thyroid Association. Endocr Pract. 2012;18(6):988-1028.
Aquino, AC. Thyroid during pregnancy: how it changes, how to test. CAP TODAY Online. [Published: Oct 2018; Accessed: Dec 2020]