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Cortisol in Blood

A cortisol test is done to measure the level of the hormone cortisol in the blood. The cortisol level may show problems with the adrenal glands or pituitary gland. Cortisol is made by the adrenal glands camera.gif. Cortisol levels go up when the pituitary gland camera.gif releases another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

Cortisol has many functions. It helps the body use sugar (glucose) and fat for energy (metabolism), and it helps the body manage stress. Cortisol levels can be affected by many conditions, such as physical or emotional stress, strenuous activity, infection, or injury.

Normally, cortisol levels rise during the early morning hours and are highest about 7 a.m. They drop very low in the evening and during the early phase of sleep. But if you sleep during the day and are up at night, this pattern may be reversed. If you do not have this daily change (diurnal rhythm) in cortisol levels, you may have overactive adrenal glands. This condition is called Cushing's syndrome.

The timing of the cortisol test is very important because of the way cortisol levels vary throughout a day. If your doctor thinks you might make too much cortisol, the test will probably be done late in the day. If your doctor thinks you may not be making enough, a test is usually done in the morning.

Why It Is Done

A cortisol test is done to find problems of the pituitary gland or adrenal glands, such as making too much or too little hormones.

How To Prepare

You may be asked to avoid strenuous physical activity the day before a cortisol test. You may also be asked to lie down and relax for 30 minutes before the blood test.

Many medicines may change the results of this test. Some medicines, such as steroids, can affect cortisol levels for some time even after you stop taking the medicine. Be sure to tell your doctor about all the nonprescription and prescription medicines you take.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?).

How It Is Done

The health professional drawing your blood will:

  • Wrap an elastic band around your upper arm to stop the flow of blood. This makes the veins below the band larger so it is easier to put a needle into the vein.
  • Clean the needle site with alcohol.
  • Put the needle into the vein. More than one needle stick may be needed.
  • Attach a tube to the needle to fill it with blood.
  • Remove the band from your arm when enough blood is collected.
  • Put a gauze pad or cotton ball over the needle site as the needle is removed.
  • Put pressure to the site and then a bandage.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 20, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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