MANAGEMENT OF ENDOCRINE DISEASE Hyperandrogenic states in women: pitfalls in laboratory diagnosis

Eur J Endocrinol. 2018 Apr;178(4):R141-R154. doi: 10.1530/EJE-17-0776. Epub 2018 Feb 16.


Measuring total testosterone level is the first-line approach in assessing androgen excess in women. The main pitfalls in measuring testosterone relate to its low concentration and to the structural similarity between circulating androgens and testosterone, requiring accurate techniques with high specificity and sensitivity. These goals can be achieved by immunoassay using a specific anti-testosterone monoclonal antibody, ideally after an extraction step. Liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) will be commonly used for measuring testosterone, providing optimal accuracy with a low limit of detection. Yet, the pitfalls of these two techniques are well identified and must be recognized and systematically addressed. In general, laboratories using direct testosterone immunoassay and mass spectrometry need to operate within a quality framework and be actively engaged in external quality control processes and standardization, so as to ensure appropriate interpretation irrespective of the particular laboratory. Circulating testosterone is strongly bound to sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), and SHBG levels are typically low in overweight hyperandrogenic patients. Thus, low SHBG may decrease circulating testosterone to normal values, which will mask androgen excess status. One way to avoid this pitfall, awaiting direct free testosterone assays that are yet to be developed, is to measure SHBG and calculate free testosterone. A few other pitfalls will be discussed in this review, including those of adrenal androgen exploration, with the aim of helping clinicians to better handle laboratory investigation of androgen excess disorders in women.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / blood
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques / methods*
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques / standards
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperandrogenism / blood*
  • Hyperandrogenism / diagnosis*
  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin / metabolism*
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry / methods
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry / standards
  • Testosterone / blood*


  • Androgens
  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin
  • Testosterone