Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Pregnancy

Font Size
A
A
A

Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) in Blood

An alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood test checks the level of AFP in a pregnant woman's blood. AFP is a substance made in the liver of an unborn baby (fetus). The amount of AFP in the blood of a pregnant woman can help see whether the baby may have such problems as spina bifida and anencephaly. An AFP test can also be done as part of a screening test to find other chromosomal problems, such as Down syndrome (trisomy 21) or Edwards syndrome (trisomy 18). An AFP test can help find an omphalocele, a congenital problem in which some of the baby's intestines stick out through the belly wall.

Normally, low levels of AFP can be found in the blood of a pregnant woman. No AFP (or only a very low level) is generally found in the blood of healthy men or healthy, nonpregnant women.

The level of AFP in the blood is used in a maternal serum triple or quadruple screening test. Generally done between 15 and 20 weeks, these tests check the levels of three or four substances in a pregnant woman's blood. The triple screen checks alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), and a type of estrogen (unconjugated estriol, or uE3). The quad screen checks these substances and the level of the hormone inhibin A. The levels of these substances—along with a woman's age and other factors—help the doctor estimate the chance that the baby may have certain problems or birth defects.

Screening tests are used to see what the chance is that your baby has a certain birth defect. If a screening test is positive, it means that your baby is more likely to have that birth defect and your doctor may want you to have a diagnostic test to make sure.

Pregnancy: Should I Have the Maternal Serum Triple or Quadruple Test?

Men, nonpregnant women, and children

In men, nonpregnant women, and children, AFP in the blood can mean that certain types of cancer—especially cancer of the testicles, ovaries, stomach, pancreas, or liver—are present. High levels of AFP may also be found in Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma, brain tumors, and renal cell cancer.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

dplink.gif

Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.

Pregnancy: Should I Have Screening Tests for Birth Defects?

Why It Is Done

The AFP test is done to:

  • Check the developing baby (fetus) of a pregnant woman for brain or spinal problems (called neural tube defects). Such defects occur in about 2 out of every 1,000 pregnancies.1 The chance of a neural tube defect in a baby is not related to the mother's age. Most women whose babies have neural tube defects have no family history of these problems.
  • Check the developing baby (fetus) of a pregnant woman for Down syndrome.
  • Find certain cancers, especially cancer of the testicles, ovaries, or liver. But up to half of the people with liver cancer do not have high AFP levels.
  • Check how well treatment for cancer is working.
  • Check for liver cancer (called hepatoma) in people who have cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis B.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 04, 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.

Pregnancy Week-By-Week Newsletter

Delivered right to your inbox, get pictures and facts on
what to expect each week of your pregnancy.

Today on WebMD

Woman smiling as she reads pregnancy test
Slideshow
pregnant woman with salad
Quiz
 
pregnancy am i pregnant
Article
babyapp
NEW
 

slideshow fetal development
Slideshow
pregnancy first trimester warning signs
Article
 
What Causes Bipolar
Video
Woman trying on dress in store
Slideshow
 

pregnant woman
Article
Close up on eyes of baby breastfeeding
Video
 
healthtool pregnancy calendar
Tool
eddleman prepare your body pregnancy
Video