Patients receiving exogenous levothyroxine are reported to have higher total and free serum thyroxine levels than euthyroid controls. This may be an artifact of the serum collection time. We explored the effect of collection time on serum levels of thyroid hormones in outpatients receiving levothyroxine for replacement therapy (26 patients) or suppression of thyrotropin (25 patients). Blood samples, obtained during regular clinic visits (random samples) and at more than 22 h from ingestion of levothyroxine (trough samples), were assayed for total and free thyroxine, triiodothyronine, and thyrotropin. Four athyreotic patients on levothyroxine therapy had serial blood sampling over 24 h. Compared to corresponding trough samples, random samples had elevated total thyroxine levels in patients receiving replacement (8.1 +/- 1.2%, mean +/- SE, p = 0.0001) and in patients undergoing suppression (8.8 +/- 1.6%, p = 0.0001). Free thyroxine was increased by 12.7 +/- 2.6% (p = 0.0003) and 14.5 +/- 2.3% (p = 0.0001), respectively, compared with trough samples. Thyrotropin levels were 18.9 +/- 6.8% (p = 0.003) lower in patients receiving replacement and triiodothyronine levels showed small or no changes. Time-course analysis showed that free and total thyroxine levels remained significantly elevated above baseline for 9 and 5 h, respectively, after a levothyroxine dose. In conclusion, there is a transient increase in thyroid hormone levels for 9 h after an oral levothyroxine dose. Accurate assessment of thyroid hormone levels in patients receiving levothyroxine therapy should take this into account. This has greatest significance in selecting minimal levothyroxine dosages for suppression of thyrotropin.