Two things to ask before you order procalcitonin (PCT): 1. Will it impact patient management?; and 2. If so, will the result be available in a timely manner ie, within hours not days?
Whatever the result, PCT should always be interpreted in the context of the patient’s illness and other objective data. Not surprisingly then, as a “screening” test, PCT may be more useful in patients with low pre-test likelihood of having bacterial infection, not dissimilar to the use of D-dimer in patients with low pre-test probability of pulmonary embolism1.
Several potential clinical uses of this biomarker have emerged in recent years, including:1,2
- Helping decide when to initiate antibiotics in patients with upper acute respiratory tract infections and bronchitis. A normal or low PCT supports viral infection.
- Helping decide when to discontinue antibiotics (ie, when PCT normalizes) in community-acquired or ventilator-associated pneumonia.
- Helping monitor patient progress with an expected drop in PCT of about 50% per day (half-life ~ 24 hrs) with effective therapy.
PCT may be unremarkable in about a third of patients with bacteremia (particularly caused by less virulent bacteria, including many gram-positives)3.
PCT levels are lowered by high-flux membrane hemodialysis, so check a baseline level before, not after, hemodialysis4.
Lastly, despite its higher specificity for bacterial infections compared to other biomarkers such as C-reactive protein, PCT may be elevated in a variety of non-infectious conditions, including pancreatitis, burns, pulmonary edema or aspiration, mesenteric infarction (ischemic bowel), cardiogenic shock, and hypotension during surgery2.
- Schuetz P, Muller B, Chirst-Crain M, et al. Procalcitonin to initiate or discontinue antibiotics in acute respiratory tract infections (review). Evid-Based Child Health (A Cochrane Review Journal) 2013;8:4;1297-137. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ebch.1927/pdf
- Gilbert GN. Use of plasma procalcitonin levels as an adjunct to clinical microbiology. J Clin Microbiol 2010;48:2325-29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897488/pdf/0655-10.pdf
- Yan ST, Sun LC, Jia HB. Procalcitonin levels in bloodstream infections caused by different sources and species of bacteria. Am J Emerg Med 2017;35:779-83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/27979420/#fft
- Grace E, Turner RM. Use of procalcitonin in patients with various degrees of chronic kidney disease including renal replacement therapy. Clin Infect Dis 2014;59:1761-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25228701