Thyroid Hormone Tests

Test Overview

Thyroid hormone tests are blood tests that check how well the thyroid gland is working. The thyroid gland makes hormones that regulate the way the body uses energy.

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland that lies in front of your windpipe (trachea), just below your voice box (larynx). The thyroid gland uses iodine from food to make two thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The thyroid gland stores these thyroid hormones and releases them as they are needed.

Thyroid hormones are needed for normal development of the brain, especially during the first 3 years of life. Intellectual disability may occur if a baby's thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone (congenital hypothyroidism). Older children also need thyroid hormones to grow and develop normally, and adults need the hormones to regulate the way the body uses energy (metabolism). The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all newborns be tested for congenital hypothyroidism.1

Thyroid hormone blood tests include:

  • Total thyroxine (T4). Most of the thyroxine (T4) in the blood is bound to a protein called thyroxine-binding globulin. Less than 1% of the T4 is free. A total T4 blood test measures both free and bound thyroxine. Free thyroxine affects tissue function in the body, but bound thyroxine does not.
  • Free thyroxine (FTI or FT4). Free thyroxine (T4) can be measured directly (FT4) or calculated as the free thyroxine index (FTI). The FTI tells how much free T4 is present compared to bound T4. The FTI can help tell if abnormal amounts of T4 are present because of abnormal amounts of thyroxine-binding globulin.
  • Triiodothyronine (T3). Most of the T3 in the blood is attached to thyroxine-binding globulin. Less than 1% of the T3 is unattached. A T3 blood test measures both bound and free triiodothyronine. T3 has a greater effect on the way the body uses energy than T4, even though T3 is normally present in smaller amounts than T4.

Why It Is Done

Thyroid hormone tests are done to:

  • Find out what is causing an abnormal thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test. For more information, see the topic Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH). This is the most common reason for thyroid hormone tests.
  • Check how well treatment of thyroid disease is working. The total thyroxine (T4), free thyroxine (FT4), and free thyroxine index (FTI) values are often used to keep track of treatment for hyperthyroidism.
  • Screen newborns to find out if the thyroid gland function is normal. A condition called congenital hypothyroidism can prevent normal growth and development and cause other severe problems, such as intellectual disability, if it is not treated soon after birth.

Continued

How To Prepare

Many medicines may change the results of this test. Be sure to tell your doctor about all the nonprescription and prescription medicines you take. If you are taking thyroid medicines, tell your doctor when you took your last dose. Your doctor may instruct you to stop taking thyroid medicines temporarily before having this test.

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

Blood test

The health professional taking a sample of 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 on the site and then put on a bandage.

Heel stick

A heel stick is used to obtain a blood sample from a newborn. The baby's heel is pricked with a sharp instrument (lancet) and several drops of blood are collected.

How It Feels

Blood test

The blood sample is taken from a vein in your arm. An elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. It may feel tight. You may feel nothing at all from the needle, or you may feel a quick sting or pinch.

Heel stick

A brief pain, like a sting or a pinch, is usually felt when the lancet punctures the skin. Your baby may feel a little discomfort with the skin puncture.

Risks

Blood test

There is very little chance of a problem from having blood sample taken from a vein.

  • You may get a small bruise at the site. You can lower the chance of bruising by keeping pressure on the site for several minutes.
  • In rare cases, the vein may become swollen after the blood sample is taken. This problem is called phlebitis. A warm compress can be used several times a day to treat this.
  • Ongoing bleeding can be a problem for people with bleeding disorders. Aspirin, warfarin, and other blood-thinning medicines can make bleeding more likely. If you have bleeding or clotting problems, or if you take blood-thinning medicine, tell your doctor before your blood sample is taken.

Heel stick

There is very little chance of a problem from a heel stick. A small bruise may develop at the site.

Continued

Results

Thyroid hormone tests are blood tests that check how well the thyroid gland is working.

Normal

The normal values listed here-called a reference range-are just a guide. These ranges vary from lab to lab, and your lab may have a different range for what's normal. Your lab report should contain the range your lab uses. Also, your doctor will evaluate your results based on your health and other factors. This means that a value that falls outside the normal values listed here may still be normal for you or your lab.

Results are usually available within a few days.

Labs generally measure free T4 (FT4) levels, but also may measure total thyroxine (T4) and T3 uptake (T3U). Results of these thyroid hormone tests may be compared to your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) results.

Thyroid hormone tests 2
Total thyroxine (T4):

11.8-22.6 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 152-292 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) in newborns

6.4-13.3 mcg/dL (83-172 nmol/L) in babies and older children

5.4-11.5 mcg/dL (57-148 nmol/L) in adults

Free thyroxine (FT4):

0.7-2.0 ng/dL nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) or 10-26 picomoles per liter (pmol/L)

Total triiodothyronine (T3):

105-245 ng/dL (1.6-3.8 nmol/L) in children ages 1-14

82-213 ng/dL (1.3-3.28 nmol/L) in adolescents ages 12-23

80-200 ng/dL (1.2-3.1 nmol/L) in adults

Free triiodothyronine (FT3):

260-480 picograms per deciliter (pg/dL) or 4.0-7.4 pmol/L in adults

Free thyroxine index (FTI):

1.5-4.5 (index) in adults

Many conditions can change thyroid hormone levels. Your doctor will talk with you about any abnormal results that may be related to your symptoms and past health.

High values

High thyroid hormone levels (hyperthyroidism) may be caused by:

  • Diseases of the thyroid gland, such as Graves' disease, thyroiditis, or a goiter that contains one or more abnormal growths (nodules).
  • Taking too much thyroid medicine.

Low values

Low thyroid hormone levels (hypothyroidism) may be caused by:

Continued

What Affects the Test

Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:

What To Think About

References

Citations

  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2008). Screening for congenital hypothyroidism: Reaffirmation recommendation statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf08/conhypo/conhyprs.htm.

  2. Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Other Works Consulted

  • Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.

  • Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Continued

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff

Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Specialist Medical ReviewerMatthew I. Kim, MD - Endocrinology

Current as ofNovember 20, 2015

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
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.© 1995-2015 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Pagination